SAN DIEGO — Aaron Judge’s record-smashing year is ending with one more big swing. Like his others, it is sending the Yankees smiling into tomorrow.
Nine months after declining a $213.5 million contract extension from the Yankees, Judge, who proceeded to set an American League single-season record with 62 home runs, has landed the biggest free-agent contract in baseball history. The deal, which is pending a physical examination, will be for nine years and $360 million, said two people familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, would only acknowledge optimism that “we’re in a good place” on Wednesday because not all of the deal’s details were finished. But Judge’s All Rise Foundation congratulated its founder and announced via Twitter, “The Judge has rendered a verdict. Back to New York.”
Cashman praised the Yankees’ owner Hal Steinbrenner as being “the tip of the spear” in the negotiations to retain Judge.
“You’re talking about one of the game’s great players, and, as his career develops, hopefully he’ll be one of the game’s greatest players,” Cashman said. “Hal’s been intimately involved and needed to be. I remember talking to Hal at some point in the season, and I told him, ‘You are going to have to be driving this.’
“I’ve been here a long time, and I know how George Steinbrenner did business and how he went about doing business in recruiting free agents and retaining free agents, and he was intimately involved. I saw a lot of that in this process.”
Judge’s decision to play out his contract year will go down as one of the best bets in sports history. On opening day in April, the Yankees made it known to the news media that Judge had declined the team’s offer of a seven-year extension. Judge, who has been one of Major League Baseball’s top sluggers since his rookie season in 2017, chose to bypass immediate financial security in hopes of earning more as a free agent.
He then broke Roger Maris’s A.L. record with 62 home runs, won the league’s Most Valuable Player Award and has cashed in with a deal that is two years longer and carries $146.5 million more in guaranteed money than the one he was offered before the season.
The agreement came after some nervous days for the Yankees here at baseball’s winter meetings. The San Francisco Giants, whom Judge had rooted for growing up, made a spirited attempt to sign him. As the negotiations reached their climax, the Yankees were unsure whether Judge, a California native, might opt to play on the West Coast, leaving them with an enormous hole in their outfield and a public-relations disaster.
Instead, Judge, 30, who captivated the baseball world with his chase of Maris’s record, will now have ample opportunity to secure a lasting legacy as a Yankees great — perhaps even as the successor to Derek Jeter as the team captain.
“Clearly I’ve never had to negotiate and try to retain somebody that just broke Roger Maris’s American League home-run record,” Cashman said. “But I have been heavily involved and had a seat at the table of engaging many a great player, and this speaks to the Steinbrenner family, whether you’re trying to sign Roger Clemens or retain Roger Clemens, whether you’re trying to retain Derek Jeter or Andy Pettitte or David Cone or David Wells.”
He added: “It’s just a consistent thread from George Steinbrenner to Hal Steinbrenner and his family members that we have been in a position in which they’ve allowed us to engage the planet’s best players.”
To keep Judge, the Yankees not only had to fend off the Giants and the San Diego Padres, an 11th-hour entry into the talks, but they also had to use some of their formidable resources. The deal will surpass the free-agent contracts of Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million), Texas’ Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million), the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole (nine years, $324 million) and San Diego’s Manny Machado (10 years, $300 million).
In terms of total dollars, Judge’s deal will trail only those of the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout (12 years, $426.5 million) and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts (12 years, $365 million). Both of those deals came via contract extensions, not free agency.
But until the end, the Yankees feared they could lose Judge, which fueled the record spend.
“Yesterday was a long, rough day in a lot of ways,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said late Wednesday morning before departing the meetings. Boone said he had “a pit in my stomach” all day and was bothered enough that he phoned Judge late Tuesday evening.
“I was going to make sure I was going to reach out to him, especially with the feelings I was having during the day,” Boone said. “I wanted to talk to him and make sure he knew, certainly, how I feel about him, how we felt about him.”
Cashman said he never went to bed Tuesday night while working to close the deal.
What the Yankees didn’t know as uncertainty swirled was that Judge, on his way to Hawaii for a vacation, sneaked into San Diego on a private plane for an in-person meeting with the Padres on Tuesday evening. That meeting, which went for about three hours, was described by a person in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity as comprehensive and earnest.
Earlier in the day, a rumor swept the winter meetings that Judge was close to singing with San Francisco. Boone, who was in his hotel room, said he immediately phoned Cashman to ask what he knew.
“‘Nothing,’” Cashman said, according to Boone.
From a long, wide-ranging conversation with Judge at season’s end, Boone said he knew the impending free agent was stung by the club’s decision in April to release details of the negotiations between the player and the team.
“He and I talked a little bit about it right at season’s end, kind of walked through that a little bit,” Boone said. “So, I knew that he was a little disappointed about that.”
Why that came up during their discussion at season’s end, Boone said, he didn’t know.
“We talked at length that last night. It’s just one of the things we talked about, but I don’t think it was anything intended to be a tactic or anything,” Boone said of the public nature of the negotiations. “It was intended to be, because we knew it was going to be constantly speculated on and out there, and we just didn’t want that to be the case. We kind of wanted to run to the situation.”
Instead, as the season progressed and the home runs began stacking up, the leverage shifted to Judge. Still, Steinbrenner said in November that he believed Judge wanted to remain a Yankee, and Boone agreed.
“I’ve always felt that way with Aaron,” Boone said. “And I always feel like he certainly belongs in pinstripes, and a guy of his stature and his greatness hopefully spends his entire career into Monument Park and into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee.”
A first-round pick by the Yankees in the 2013 draft, Judge hit 52 home runs in 2017 and won the A.L.’s Rookie of the Year Award. It was an outsize season for the outsize slugger (6 feet 7 inches, 282 pounds). Five seasons later, he produced a season that was bigger and better in every way.
In addition to the 62 home runs, Judge was in the race for the triple crown until the final week of the season. He batted a career-high .311, led the majors in runs scored (133) and tied Pete Alonso of the Mets for the major league lead with 131 runs batted in. He also led the majors in on-base percentage (.425), slugging percentage (.686) and total bases (391). He was nimble on the bases (16 steals) and flexible in the outfield (74 starts in center field and 54 in right field).
It was a magical season in so many ways, the only flaw being that Judge and the Yankees couldn’t write the ending they wanted. An organization that prides itself on World Series titles was swept by the eventual World Series champion, Houston, in the A.L. Championship Series, and Judge batted just .063 (1 for 16) with no homers and no R.B.I. in those four games.
Now, with Judge back in the fold, the Yankees are free to turn their attention to the rest of the roster. They need starting pitching after Jameson Taillon agreed to terms with the Chicago Cubs on a four-year, $68 million deal this week and have been in touch with the free agent Carlos Rodón, among others. They also need to settle left field and improve their bullpen.
“We’re on the clock to continue to find ways to improve the club both small and large,” Cashman said.
They started by filling what would have been on enormous hole. And now, as Steinbrenner suggested was possible last month, there is thought that Judge will follow in the tradition of Jeter, Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and others and be the Yankees’ next captain.
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