Aaron Judge bet on himself. And so far, he looks set to soak the house.
The slugger’s slow start to the season after contract talks with the Yankees broke down is long forgotten. Now all he does is deliver big moments on the march to October — and to a massive contract when he hits free agency shortly after.
Judge’s year hit a new high point Tuesday. He blasted his first walk-off home run to down the Blue Jays, 6-5, and lift the Yankees to another improbable victory. The Bombers have the best record in baseball, they’re six games ahead of Toronto in the loss column and Judge is mashing — an MLB-leading 10 homers — while staying healthy, creating feel-good moments in his spare time and masking his intentions with an even-keel approach in public.
Let’s say you drew up a checklist on Opening Day, outlining the criteria Judge needed to earn the Mike Trout-esque deal he reportedly seeks. About a fifth of the way through the season, he is hitting on every point save a World Series win. And if he maintains this pace, owner Hal Steinbrenner will have no choice but to pony up. Which, to be fair to him, he already tried to do.
The Yankees’ failed offer to Judge was more than fair. And his apparent demands before talks broke off were a bit much given the circumstances at the time. Judge’s ability to stay healthy as he approaches his 30th birthday was a real question in early April, and there is no objective argument to make he is an equal player to Trout. The idea of a trade to protect the Yankees from losing Judge for nothing was rational then.
But just as Judge bet on himself, the Yankees bet on him as well. They bet a jilted Judge wouldn’t go scorched earth. That he could actually table the matter and focus on the season, and that approach would still position both parties to get what they wanted this winter — preferably in partnership.
That is where this is trending now. But Judge clearly has the upper hand. As long as he stays in the lineup and keeps hitting, selling shirseys and generating excitement, he is going to get his money. And the Yankees, having gone all the way down the road, will have no choice but to give it to him.
Yes, there will be risks. A lucrative long-term deal for a player of Judge’s age, size and injury history will still be a bit of a leap of faith. And given Steinbrenner’s strategic penny-pinching, it’s fair to wonder if a massive Judge investment will end up costing the Yankees elsewhere with the payroll.
But it’s just money. It’s still debatable whether Judge is going to be deserving of All-Time Yankee status when his career is over. But he’s the face of the franchise now, and he is bumping up the cost of business with each passing day. The Yankees will have to pay up. And hope they don’t get outbid.
James Kratch can be reached at [email protected]