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A giant move for Aaron Judge all but sets MLB’s winter meetings ablaze

Aaron Judge is looking for his next contract after slugging 62 home runs for the Yankees in 2022. (Elsa/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO — Around 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, just as San Francisco Giants Manager Gabe Kapler finished his winter meetings session with reporters, word started to spread through the lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt that the star of this year’s free agent market had made up his mind. It started with a tweet, quickly retracted, that suggested Aaron Judge was bringing the New York Yankees’ worst-case scenario to bear by signing with the Giants.

It persisted despite repeated assurances from Giants CEO Larry Baer, cornered in the hotel driveway, that he had “nothing to report,” despite Kapler insisting he hadn’t heard anything — though he admitted, somewhat coyly, that he had been talking to reporters, not looking at his phone. By the time the sun set on a cloudy day here, nothing was official.

Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said he had just gotten out of the shower when the rumor reached him. He called General Manager Brian Cashman, who told him nothing had changed as far as he knew. A few minutes later, it was his turn to meet with reporters, whom he greeted with a smile and a joke about the fortuitous timing.

“It’s been an uncomfortable hour,” he admitted.

Elsewhere, it was a frantic one. Reporters in the lobby checked for chartered flights from Tampa, where Judge had greeted Tom Brady at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ game Monday night, to San Diego. They found one, landing in the late afternoon. The day’s baseball news — including first baseman Josh Bell agreeing to a two-year deal with the Cleveland Guardians and left-hander Andrew Heaney agreeing to sign with the Texas Rangers for two years, according to people familiar with the deals — seemed quaint by comparison.

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Judge had been the focus of the baseball world almost all season, from the moment he turned down New York’s extension offer in April through his 62-home run summer to the night the Yankees’ season ended when the soon-to-be World Series champion Houston Astros swept them in the American League Championship Series.

For the Yankees, Judge was the foundation on which to build this offseason, not a prize to be won. He was the AL MVP, and rightfully so: No player in baseball had as much on-field influence over his team’s fate than Judge, who sometimes single-handedly propped up New York’s lineup down the stretch. He would be the Giants’ biggest star since Buster Posey — maybe since Barry Bonds.

So the day in San Diego belonged to Judge, who neither began the day in San Diego nor seemed to have made a decision by the time MLB’s inaugural draft lottery — won by the Pittsburgh Pirates — made a meek attempt to change the subject. Agent Scott Boras held his once-a-meetings media scrum. He is usually the man with the big stars at these meetings, and he has a few — but none of them are Judge.

One of those clients was Cody Bellinger, the enigmatic 2019 National League MVP who was not tendered a contract by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He agreed to a one-year deal worth $17.5 million with the Chicago Cubs, according to a person familiar with the situation. The Giants had been interested in adding Bellinger to their outfield, people familiar with their thinking said. But if they were going to lose out on a high-profile outfielder Tuesday, you could assume they would rather it be him. (They did add outfielder Mitch Haniger on a three-year deal worth $43.5 million, ESPN reported, but that would not preclude them from grabbing Judge, too.)

Another Boras client and elite outfielder, former New York Met Brandon Nimmo, was in San Diego this week meeting with teams. But his fate seemed tied to Judge’s, too.

“There is the expectation that certain clubs are waiting to move to the next step depending on the outcome” of Judge’s free agency, Boras told reporters.

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Would the Giants need an outfielder if they lost out on Judge? If not, many teams have room for a speedy, steady, top-of-the-order bat such as Nimmo’s — if they are willing to spend what Boras will require for him. Even the Tampa Bay Rays, not known for prolific spending, have expressed interest, according to a person familiar with Nimmo’s market.

So Nimmo remained on the list of top-tier free agents yet to sign — some of whom could represent backup offensive additions for the Yankees or Giants if one missed out on Judge. Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, catcher Willson Contreras and lefty Carlos Rodón remained unsigned as of late Tuesday, although righty Taijuan Walker agreed to a four-year, $72 million deal, per a person familiar with it, with the Philadelphia Phillies, who added pitching depth a day after grabbing star shortstop Trea Turner. The extent to which all of their markets depended on Judge will be clear in hindsight. But the extent of the speculation around them Tuesday was minuscule by comparison.

No one’s decision could set the baseball world ablaze as Judge’s appeared to do Tuesday, when the segments of baseball fandom that root against the Yankees were desperate to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and the Yankees prayed it was a false alarm.

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