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Aaron Judge avoids arbitration, but will he be a Yankee for life?

Aaron Judge has said he wants to be a Yankee for life, as is expected of those who begin their careers in the Bronx. (Bebeto Matthews/AP Photo)
7 min

NEW YORK — Aaron Judge had pushed the New York Yankees to the brink of a potentially unpleasant arbitration hearing, the last thing a team wants months before it will bid to keep around its best homegrown star in a generation.

The hearing was scheduled for noon Friday. About that time, Judge and his representatives were set up at the MLB Players Association offices in midtown Manhattan, dressed up and logged into Zoom, ready to hear why the Yankees thought the 30-year-old having one of the most prolific first halves in franchise history was not worth the $21 million he had reportedly suggested.

But by 12:45 p.m. or so, the hearing was canceled. The Yankees had settled. And Judge, who will reportedly make $19 million this season with the chance for more in bonuses, said he was relieved — not so much because he had a deal but because of what it might mean for one of 162 games the cruising Yankees will play this season.

“If I would have went in that room I probably would have missed the game tonight,” Judge said Friday night after his Yankees suffered their first home loss in 16 games to the Houston Astros. “That really didn’t sit too well with me. I value playing this game tonight with my teammates more than the contract.”

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Comments such as that are the reason Judge is so beloved here — he doesn’t complain and puts team above self so relentlessly it sometimes strains credulity. Perhaps Judge is just saying all the right things. Perhaps he means every word. But reality is less important than perception in the Bronx, where the most venerated player of the last Yankees dynasty, Derek Jeter, was beloved because of (and perhaps despite) the fact he hardly ever shared any of himself.

Those dominant Yankees didn’t have a run producer quite like Judge, who leads the majors in homers with 27 as of Saturday morning — five more than the next closest hitter, a remarkably wide margin for late June. He is fourth in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and third in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement. He has established himself as a credible threat for late-game heroics, such as when he delivered a walk-off winner Thursday night, just hours before his arbitration hearing was scheduled to begin.

He is on pace for 63 homers, which would be more than treasured Yankees Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle hit in a season — more than anyone has hit while being tested regularly for performance-enhancing drugs. He adjusted in the outfield, becoming an everyday center fielder who allows the Yankees much-needed lineup flexibility with less mobile behemoths around him. He has been at the heart of everything that has gone right for the Yankees a season after everything seemed to go wrong. With the weight of free agency looming, Judge has soared.

“I’m excited that’s behind us,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “[We can] leave that portion of the show alone.”

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Arbitration hearings are not normally held in season, but they are happening late this year because of the MLB lockout; a player’s 2022 performance is not allowed to be considered in any midseason hearings.

Whether Judge’s arbitrators would have been able to ignore his monstrous season never became a question. But Judge is having a season that, even in the context of this storied franchise, may end up being hard for history to ignore.

Judge has said he wants to be a Yankee for life, as is expected of those who begin their careers in the Bronx. But his brinkmanship Friday and his unwillingness to take the Yankees’ seven-year extension offer worth $213.5 million this spring confirmed he will offer no hometown discount.

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Asked Friday whether avoiding a hearing gave him more confidence he and the Yankees will come to a long-term agreement this winter, Judge said simply, “No.” He wasn’t angry. But he wasn’t going to go there. He said this spring he wouldn’t negotiate a long-term deal during the regular season, and the plan has not changed.

When he does negotiate that deal, Judge will be a fascinating case study. Since he became a regular in 2017, only three players have a higher WAR, according to FanGraphs: Mike Trout, José Ramírez and Mookie Betts. Trout is playing on a contract that pays him an average annual value of $35.5 million. Ramírez gave his Cleveland Guardians a hometown discount and signed a deal worth just more than $20 million annually, an outlier by any measure. Betts’s deal pays him $30.4 million annually. When the Yankees offered Judge $30.5 million annually, he turned them down.

What Judge seems to realize is that he may be worth more here, to this franchise, in this city, than he would be anywhere else. In San Francisco, near where he grew up, or Los Angeles or Chicago or any other market that might be able to afford him, he will be a superstar. Here, Judge is the consummate Yankee, Jeterian in every way, the highest compliment a passionately picky fan base can impart. Here, where they consider New York-ready fortitude the sixth and most treasured tool, Judge has proved himself capable of handling it all.

If Jeter wrote the guidebook for modern Yankees stardom, no one since has followed it quite as doggedly as Judge. He makes himself available to the media regularly but never says anything you didn’t already know. He never betrays arrogance but always exudes confidence. He makes no excuses but he has also endeared himself to fans this year by not needing them in the first place. What happens behind the scenes in baseball clubhouses can be hard to discern, but if Judge is playing a character, he never breaks.

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To the extent that he has ever caused controversy, one swelled when he refused to confirm whether he was vaccinated against the coronavirus and therefore threw his eligibility to play key American League East games in Toronto into question. He and his manager dodged days of questions about the issue, never quite confirming he wasn’t vaccinated, never quashing the whole thing by saying he was. Then, a few days before the team’s first trip to Canada, Boone told reporters he expected to have everyone available for the series. If Judge hadn’t been vaccinated, he apparently was now.

What Judge’s Yankees résumé lacks is postseason success. His best October chance ended at the hands of the since-disgraced Astros in the 2017 AL Championship Series. The fans here remember that series and they remember that season as the one in which José Altuve, potentially aided by the Astros’ well-documented sign-stealing practices, beat out Judge for the AL MVP award. They still boo Altuve and the Astros accordingly, as they did Friday night.

But these are not the 2017 Yankees. These Yankees reached 50 wins by mid-June, lead the major leagues in runs scored and run prevention and would break MLB’s all-time regular season wins record if they keep going like this. Even against those pesky Astros, they probably could have handled a night without Judge. A few months from now, he will decide whether they must handle a long-term future without him, too.