$360 million in his 30s!? Grading the record deal bringing Aaron Judge back to the Yankees

8:40 AM ET

SAN DIEGO — The New York Yankees are baseball’s flagship franchise and have been since the 1920s. You don’t have to be a fan of theirs to believe that. You only have to look at the championships, the names on the plaques at Cooperstown, the merchandise sales and so much else.

That isn’t to say the Yankees are the only team that matters, but it’s important to keep their stature in mind when thinking about how to assess the news that Aaron Judge has agreed to a nine-year, $360 million deal to spend his 30s donning pinstripes in the Bronx.

Judge certainly had reasons to jump ship, perhaps to the San Francisco Giants, whom he watched while growing up in California and who made an aggressive run to sign him. Those reasons would have been personal and entirely a matter of Judge and his prerogatives. But from an outside perspective, the Yankees made the most sense for him all along.

Why? Because they are the Yankees. In other words, if this franchise, the only one for which Judge has played, was willing to meet the market to retain him, it would have been surprising, even shocking, if he had ended up elsewhere. If the biggest team has the game’s biggest star and wants to keep him, then all things being equal, that’s exactly what we would expect to happen.

This matter of the Yankees’ status in MLB’s hierarchy affects how we assess the deal. Simply put, the signing of Judge for that many years and for that much money generates a different grade for the Yankees than it would most of the other teams in the majors, even high-revenue teams like the Giants or Los Angeles Dodgers.

Make no mistake, losing Judge would have represented a loss of stature for the Yankees as a franchise. The loss would not have been irretrievable, but it would have cast a shadow over the team’s quest to snap a 13-year World Series title drought, and not just because Judge might well be the best player in the game right now. The shadow would also be cast by sudden doubts about the organizational culture and the allure of the franchise to free agents. The hallowed Yankees mystique might have been consigned to the history books.

Even if Judge isn’t the best player in the game — a good debate for another day — he is probably the game’s biggest star at the moment, coming off a historic 62-homer campaign that across the board was one of the most stunning performances by any player in the history of the sport.

Just to point to one example of Judge’s impact: When commissioner Rob Manfred was making his opening remarks at the winter meetings, he cited the trajectory of MLB’s 2022 journey from a labor dispute that threatened the season to a full and memorable campaign. The one specific case he mentioned was the performance put up by Judge. He was the avatar for everything that went right for baseball since the near total calamity of the lockout.

All of this extra context is now window dressing meant to highlight just how bad it would have been for the Yankees to lose Judge. But they didn’t lose Judge, and now it seems highly likely that he will join the list of Yankees stars who end up never donning another uniform, another homegrown legend whom fans in the Bronx have all to themselves. The list is long and unmatched … Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Berra, Jeter … and someday, Aaron Judge could very well look right at home on it.

Still, even for the Yankees, this is quite an investment. It’s not going to wreck them if it doesn’t work out. The immensity of the Yankees’ resources is one major reason they get graded differently for making this kind of commitment to a player coming off his age-30 season. If things go south, it’s not going to sink the franchise for the next decade.

The question now becomes: How likely is it that things go south?

This is a difficult question to answer, because there just haven’t been many players like Judge. If ballplayers could be divided into subgroups of players with nearly identical traits, Judge might very well have a group all to himself.

Still, the mega-contracts handed out over the years have been a mixed bag for the most part. Almost by definition, a long-term pact worth a total value of, say, $200 million is given when a player is at his highest point. Cot’s Contracts listed 26 $200 million deals in its database before this winter’s generous free agent season. Of those, just six were given to position players whose platform campaign came in their age-30 season or later.

In the two seasons before the megadeal, these post-30 players averaged 6.4 bWAR and 148 games played per season. In the first two seasons after the deals were signed, those averages dropped to 3.9 and 128.

When you sign a player to a deal like this, you’re banking on him at least holding his value at the front of the contract. But in this small sample of post-30 mega-earners, the dropoff was immediate, and Judge will turn 31 in April of his first season with the new contract.

Nevertheless, there is a lot Judge has going for him in terms of fending off some of the forces that worry you about post-30 players, not the least of which is that teams seem increasingly unconcerned this winter about paying big for players over 30.

Judge is athletic, and plus athletes generally fare better on the aging curve, though that’s more a general principle than an ironclad certainty. But his plus-13 net stolen bases in 2022 were a career best; Over his first six seasons, that number was plus-12. And of course he moved well enough to play a solid center field, though when he is in right, he’s elite.

Then there is the very obvious fact that Judge is just really … good. He posted a 10.6 bWAR last season, and that’s rarefied air. There have been 24 player seasons in MLB history in which a player has hit 10 bWAR in his age-30 season or later. Thirteen different players comprise those player seasons.

We’re talking about some players with historically strong brands, to put it into 21st century parlance: Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken Jr., Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Nap Lajoie, Lou Boudreau, Sammy Sosa and Willie Mays.

Rarely does a player, even at that relatively advanced age, reach that level and simply hit a wall. Ripken fell off after his 10-plus bWAR season, as did Boudreau. But at the other end of the spectrum were Wagner and Ruth, who had eight more seasons with 5.0 or more bWAR — an All-Star performance. Mays and Cobb had seven. When you consider the group of players in total, they averaged 4.1 additional All-Star seasons.

So maybe the Yankees will be paying a premium price for a more average-ish player later in the deal but, again, it’s the Yankees, and if they get a few more seasons of what they’ve gotten from Judge so far, they will be in great shape and looking at another future plaque in Monument Park.

Judge is more than his 10.6 bWAR season. He’s put up 7.9 bWAR per 650 plate appearances (roughly a full season) since he became a full-time big leaguer. The only source of real consternation about the contract is his injury history, which has involved a range of maladies from COVID-19 to a calf strain to two oblique strains to a hard-luck wrist injury suffered on a hit by pitch. But Judge has averaged more than 152 games over the past two seasons and draws high marks for his work ethic and penchant for self-improvement.

You can’t talk away all the risk in a contract of this scale. You simply can’t do it. But if there is a franchise better situated to take on that risk than the Yankees, I haven’t seen it. What seems even riskier to me is being the Yankees, making an all-in play for a blossoming franchise legend and then watching him walk away.

That would not have been very Yankees-like.

Grade: A-

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