The Yankees have done a fantastic job of amassing elite young talent. Despite experiencing some lean years by Yankees standards, the team did not undergo a full blown rebuild to return to prominence. Brian Cashman and company were wildly successful in collecting a ton of major league ready talent that burst on the scene together. Over the last few years, this core delivered great production at a relatively low cost. The downside is paying the piper when those years of control begin to dwindle.
Prominent players like Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are now entering their arbitration years. Gleyber Torres is not far behind. All three players are crucial to the long term viability of the team. DJ Lemehieu signed for two years at $12 million and far exceeded that value in one year. Up until last year, the Yankees had a firm policy of not offering contract extensions prior to a player’s free agency. The Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks extensions changed the dynamic a bit. Over the course of the spring, I’ll be exploring if Judge, Gary, Gleyber, and DJLM are appropriate candidates for long term extensions with the Yankees. We begin with Aaron Judge.
One Of The Truly Great Players In The Game
Aaron Judge is a top 10 player. He may be a top 5 player. The only legitimate argument against him is concern over his health. Judge is baseball’s version of Patrick Mahomes, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. He is a true impact player who consistently alters the course of a game on both sides of the field. It feels like we take his greatness for granted. The numbers and data over his short career are insane.
Judge is a career .273/.394/.558/.952 hitter in four seasons (really three and a half). He’s hit 110 home runs. In his only full season in the majors in 2017, he hit .284/.422/.627/1.049 with 52 home runs. He played half of that season with one arm. Here are his statcast rankings over the last three years:
Red is my favorite color. I just love it. I especially love it when statcast graphics are red. Some of these rankings are a beautiful bright red. Judge consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous hitters in the game. There is virtually no drop off from year to year.
More Than A Slugger
To further demonstrate how devastating a hitter Judge is, here is a list of statistics and his league rankings in those categories over his career:
- Barrel Percentage: 20.7% (Top 1%)
- Exit Velocity: 95.1% (Top 1%)
- xSLG: .579 (Top 3%)
- WOBA: .397 (Top 5%)
- XWOBA: .410 (Top 3%)
- XWOBACON: .575 (Top 3%)
- Hard Hit %: 55.4% (Top 1%)
- Walk %: 16.1% (Top 3%)
The last number may be the most impressive one. Some of this data is the result of an imposing physical specimen with efficient, consistent and simple hitting mechanics. The plate discipline is truly impressive for a power hitter. When looking at contract extensions it is important to identify skills that can hold up over the long term. The ability to control the strike zone is crucial. Yes, there are a lot of strikeouts, but some of those are a result of too much patience and a trash strike zone. The K’s are partly a byproduct of Judge’s elite batting eye.
Fangraphs projects another huge year from Judge. Their ZiPS projection has him at .260/.377/.536/.913 with a 140 OPS+. If Judge stays healthy this season, these numbers feel conservative. We have yet to see a fully healthy Judge play a full season. 2017 offered a glimpse, but Judge is a far better hitter now. We’re easily talking MVP level production if there are no injuries.
Gold Glove Caliber Defense
If it wasn’t for Mookie Betts, Judge may already be a multi-time gold glove award winner. He finished the 2019 season with 8 Outs Above Average. That is an absurd number especially for a man his size. He ranks in the 94th percentile in that category.
We all know about his arm. It is a legitimate defensive weapon that prevents runners from taking the extra base or attempting to score. There were numerous times when runners pumped the brakes on the basepaths as soon as Judge made a clean play on the ball. This won’t show up in the numbers, but the arm is a clear deterrent.
Beyond the throwing ability, Aaron Judge displays above-average range. Fielding range is a nuanced defensive descriptor. It goes beyond how much area a player can cover. The best fielders can make plays in any direction of their position. Good defenders can come in on the ball. They can go back on the ball. They can also make plays to both their glove and off hand sides. Judge can do it all. Here is a chart of his responsible plays in 2019:
It doesn’t get much better than this. One under the radar benefit of Judge’s defensive prowess is his ability to defend the short porch. We all know about the cheap home runs due to the short right field wall. Judge is able to negate that as much as one player can. He made the single biggest defensive play of the 2017 ALDS against Cleveland in Game 3:
Beyond taking the ball away from Zack Hample, this play is a perfect illustration of Judge’s impact as a defender. He makes this play look routine when other fielders have to time their jumps. Judge just calmly reaches up and easily snags the ball. This is incredibly rare.
Aaron’s lack of full time availability throughout a season is a legitimate concern. He has yet to complete a full campaign without sustaining a serious injury. In 2016, he pulled his oblique. He injured his left shoulder in 2017. That injury required offseason surgery. A hit by pitch cost him a couple of months in 2018. There was another oblique injury last season. The beginning of this spring training camp brings along a sore shoulder. Outside of the hit by pitch, all of these ailments do bring up long term viability concerns for a player of his size.
The trouble in projecting Judge’s long term future is the lack of player comps. The attributes that make him so unique also make it hard to provide a context of how his career could play out. There is a prevailing belief that players of Aaron’s size will ultimately break down. That may be true, but how many players of his size were this athletic? Judge isn’t a hulking brute. He is an elite level athlete with tremendous size. Dave Winfield is a comparable player and he retired at the age of 45.
Judge may have injury stretches every season. This could be his reality as a major league baseball player. As long as the injuries aren’t catastrophic or impact long term health and performance it probably isn’t the end of the world.
Should The Yankees Extend Him Soon?
The answer to this question is a resounding yes. Unless you’re the suddenly cost prudent Red Sox or a small market team crying broke, you don’t let top 10 players walk away. Teams can play the cost controlled arbitration game with most players, but when it comes to the best of the best, franchises are better off locking them up for the long term. There are significant dangers in letting your franchise player inch closer to free agency. The allure of experiencing the free market gets stronger. The cost for that player’s services could increase with highly productive seasons. It also increases the chances of destroying a championship level core. We can look at the Mookie Betts trade as a sobering reminder. There were reports Mookie wanted to enter the free agent market. The Red Sox also could’ve presented Betts an offer he couldn’t refuse.
A contract extension secures the Yankees’ most important player for the entirety of his prime years. Yes, Judge won’t be a free agent until his age 31 season. As mentioned earlier, Judge is an incredibly unique player. It isn’t inconceivable to believe his elite productivity could last into his mid-30’s. There is also the chance that Judge breaks arbitration records if he’s able to produce a year like 2017 again. An extension allows both sides to amicably settle on a number that both reflects his value and addresses future payroll concerns.
What Does A Potential Extension Look Like?
The closest comp in regards to production and service time is Alex Bregman. For the sake of this conversation, we’ll put cheating scandals on the side. Bregman signed a five year, $100 million extension that takes him to his age 31 season. The deal bought out three arbitration years and two free agent years. A Judge extension could be for six years, $150 million, which would buy out the final two years of arbitration and four free agent years.
Judge could enter the market at 34 or revisit another deal with the Yankees. This gives Judge an AAV of $25 million and allows him to avoid a market that looks down upon free agents over the age of 30. The Yankees could structure the deal in a way that gives them some luxury tax relief if they need it in the next few years. An extension is a win for both sides and it should happen sooner than later.