Paying Aaron Judge
The good news is that Aaron Judge is one of the best players in baseball.
The bad news is that at some point, Aaron Judge will be paid like one of the best players in baseball.
The Yankees have him under team control for one more year at a low salary and then three in arbitration. He’s a free agent after the 2022 season.
If the Yankees wait to sign him, they will have lower salaries now and then will pay through the nose if they retain him as a free agent after 2022. Alternatively, they could sign him to an extension while still under team control. Generally, teams can get better terms (lower salaries and fewer years during declining productivity) if they negotiate contracts when players are under team control. The sooner they negotiate the contracts, the more leverage they have. Players trade best case total cash for security.
The Results So Far
Aaron Judge’s 2017 rookie season was the stuff of legends. After a brief cup of coffee in 2016, he hit .284/.422/.627 with 52 home runs. He had a high strikeout rate (30.7%) but walked 18.7% of the time. His wins above replacement player (WAR) of 8.2 was astonishingly high for a rookie.
I thought that his average would plummet given that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .357 (roughly .300 is average) but his BABIP actually increased in 2018 to .368. In 2018 his power declined a bit and his overall line slipped to .278/.392/.528 but he still produced 5 WAR in 112 games which works out to around 7 WAR for a full season.
Here are my estimates for what Aaron Judge will earn over the next four years if the Yankees take this year by year. The arbitration years are based on 25%, 40% and 62% of what his free market value would be.
The Challenge of a Franchise Icon
Players typically peak around age 30 so with a normal player, one could have a discussion as to whether it would make sense to let them walk in free agency after their years of team control. This is obviously not an option with Judge. If Judge keeps up his current pace with a normal decline, he would certainly be in the 70-90 career WAR range which would qualify him for the Hall of Fame. He’s also a great guy and fan favorite. So the Yankees will have to give him something like the Derek Jeter/Mariano Rivera treatment.
Contract Extension Options
The first case is what an extension might look like after 2022. Assuming a normal decline, Judge would put up 46 WAR between 2023 and 2032 (his age 31-40 seasons). Assuming a 5% increase in the estimated $9 million per WAR given to players when they sign contracts, this yields a whopping $503 million 10 year contract. That’s $50.3 million per year. Please remember that this is 5 years from now. Robinson Cano got $24 million over 10 before the 2014 season. This will be nine years after that and Judge has been, so far, a better player
What would it look like to extend Judge today?
I’ve put together some rough estimates assuming that the Yankees buy out Judge’s years of team control at the salaries above and then pay him $35 million for the remaining years.
Two years of contract buyout plus two more option years is somewhat standard but, of course, Judge is arguably in his own category. The Yankees might have to go longer and guarantee all of the years.
The average salaries start to creep up into those received by baseball’s highest paid players. Which makes sense. The cost per WAR is still relatively modest. And even the 10 year contract ends in Judge’s year 36 season when he still should be a very good player.
I can understand that the Yankees might want to wait to see what happens with Judge. Will he be able to stay healthy or does that 6 foot 7 280 pound frame mean that he is more likely to get injured? Can he sustain that incredibly high BABIP? The serious statheads believe that Judge’s high exist velocity makes this a possibility.
I would sign Judge to an extension as soon as possible. Every year that the Yankees wait sees an increase in cost per WAR. And every year of under market pay removes a year that brings down the averages, raising the ultimate average annual cost of the contract. I understand that this would push the Yankees above the luxury tax in 2019 but they have to think long term.
Losing a potential Hall-of-Famer and franchise icon is simply not an option for the Yankees. They are not the A’s or the Marlins. Part of the Yankee brand is paying and keeping their franchise players, adding them to Monument Park, and cheering as they enter the Hall.