Signing Aaron Judge: Pros, cons, predictions

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Aaron Judge bet on himself, and it's going to pay off in a big way.

The reigning American League MVP hit the open market after a historic, record-breaking season with baseball's most famous and visible franchise. Whoever lands him will have to pony up far more than the $213.5-million extension offer he turned down from the New York Yankees last spring.

Let's break down Judge's free agency by looking at the pros and cons of signing him, and evaluating the superstar's potential suitors.

Pros

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The big number was, of course, the 62 home runs, a new American League record. But Judge also showed that he's far more than just a home-run hitter. He made a legitimate run at the Triple Crown, and though he fell short, his .311 average placed second in the AL. Judge also led the majors in OBP (.425), slugging (.686), OPS (1.111), total bases (391), runs (133), extra-base hits (90), and walks (111).

We can be realistic and say that Judge likely won't hit 62 again. But even with a slight decline in production, you're still getting a natural hitter who's quite capable of putting up a .300/.400/.500 line annually. There's also his quietly solid outfield defense, which won't win a Gold Glove but is pretty good for a player of his size. Judge was a plus defender in both right and center this year, and he owns one of the best outfield arms. Who wouldn't sign up for that?

From a marketing standpoint, it's very hard to do wrong here. Judge is a gentle giant with a million-dollar smile whose interactions with fans instantly go viral. He's the type of athlete pro sports franchise dream about acquiring. He also transcends the sport, having finished fourth on People's 2022 Sexiest Man Alive list. On and off the field, Judge is the total package and arguably worth every penny he's asking for.

Cons

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The first reason to step back is obviously money. Judge, who'll turn 31 in April, is believed to be seeking a deal of at least eight years with an average annual value above $40 million, Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reported Monday. That price tag alone instantly eliminates a large swath of teams.

Those willing to pony up should carefully consider the risks of doing so.

Judge isn't as injury-plagued as his longtime teammate Giancarlo Stanton, but he's dealt with his fair share of ailments. Even if we throw out the freak wrist fracture in 2018, he missed significant time in both 2019 and '20 with oblique and calf issues. Judge may be a freakishly gifted athlete at 6-foot-7, but he also has a body type and stature that will betray him with age. The mobility that makes him such a good outfielder despite his size won't last forever, making a future move to first base, or even strict designated hitter duties, a real possibility. Nobody wants to be stuck paying a slowed-down, nearly 40-year-old DH with rapidly declining production over $40 million.

Maybe Judge bucks these trends and ages gracefully over the life of his next deal. Or perhaps it's worth taking the short-term gains now and letting someone else worry about handling a slowed-down Judge in 2034. The reality is that handing this kind of money to a star player on the wrong side of 30 has often ended badly. If you're signing Judge, you have to be comfortable with accepting these risks.

Best fits

Los Angeles Dodgers: Judge would be an instant blockbuster hit in Hollywood, but it's not the smoothest on-field fit. There have been whispers that Mookie Betts might move to second base if Judge arrived, even though he's by far the superior defender in right. One of them could always play center, or Judge could even shift to left for the first time in his career. Regardless, the Dodgers do need outfielders, they can obviously afford him, and a third MVP in their lineup would be downright scary. If Judge really wants to become a Dodger, they can easily cut him the check and figure the rest out later.

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New York Mets: Could the Mets really lure Judge across town? The possibility can't be dismissed, especially since owner Steve Cohen seems to love opening his wallet. Signing Judge would have the added benefit of dealing an especially devastating blow to the Yankees, who might find themselves taking a back seat to their civic rivals for the first time since the 1980s. The Mets' most pressing need is starting pitching, but they still need to make this call. Judge could put them over the top.

New York Yankees: Do we really need to explain this one? Judge is the pillar of the Yankees, the next in a long line of franchise icons. They want to keep him, they can obviously meet his price, and though he's clearly enjoying free agency, there's no indication Judge actively wants to leave. It'd be a disastrous day for the franchise if it lets him walk. Surely, Hal Steinbrenner can find the money to ensure Judge is a Yankee for life.

San Francisco Giants: This would be a homecoming for Judge, who grew up a Giants fan about 90 minutes east of San Francisco in Linden, California. The Giants have been open about their desire and ability to spend this winter, and they're in desperate need of both an outfielder and an impact right-handed bat. Judge fits that description, and is also capable of handling Oracle Park's spacious outfield defensively. In the winter of 1992, the Giants shockingly outbid the Yankees for a reigning MVP and Bay Area native named Barry Bonds. It's not out of the question that they could do it again.

Texas Rangers: Of all the possible wild cards in this race, the Rangers seem to make the most sense. Texas' most pressing need is the outfield, so the fit is clearly there. Last winter, it committed $556 million to Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, and Jon Gray. In October, it lured veteran manager Bruce Bochy out of retirement. You don't make those kinds of moves toward contention only to sit on your hands when Aaron Judge is available. The Rangers clearly love to spend, but it's worth wondering whether even they might balk at adding a third megadeal to their long-term payroll obligations.

Prediction: Judge listens to everyone but eventually re-signs with the Yankees on a nine-year, $375-million deal.

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Signing Aaron Judge: Pros, cons, predictions
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