The case for 2023 Yankees roster reset if Aaron Judge leaves

The Yankees wanted to limit their bid on Gerrit Cole to eight years. They could have stayed there and hoped the right-hander — raised in Orange County, Calif. — wouldn’t really enlist with the suspect Angels or accept a Dodgers proposal littered with deferrals.

But Hal Steinbrenner badly wanted an ace, feeling it was the missing piece to a championship team. Thus, rather than try to suss out whether there was a bluff being perpetuated, he authorized going to nine years. He knew that — in conjunction with the largest per-annum value ever ($36 million) — would cement a deal.

My hunch is Steinbrenner feels the same way about retaining Aaron Judge. That if he has to add, for example, a year to an offer to retain his star, that he will do so.

Thus, I think there are only two ways Judge can be pried from the Yankees:

1. He really doesn’t want to come back. Essentially, this would mean the appeal of being a lifetime Yankee has waned — and did more so after Judge hit 62 homers during the regular season and nevertheless was booed when he struggled in the postseason.

2. A team makes an offer that the Yankees feel it would be irresponsible to match or exceed. What if, for example. a suitor offers Judge 10 years at $400 million? Is there an amount in dollars or years that even Steinbrenner — knowing what the blowback would be if he lets Judge go — simply would find unapproachable?

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner
Jason Szenes

It feels within both scenarios the Giants are the biggest threat. Where might Judge go and feel an attachment that would make leaving the Yankees palatable? How about the team for which he cheered growing up in Northern California? Especially if the Giants also are going to lavish record dollars in Judge’s direction.

And the Giants arguably have more motivations to make a blow-away offer than any organization.

Their 2022 home attendance was down to 2.48 million, the lowest it had been in a season not impacted by COVID since 1999. But that 1999 total came within a period when attendance climbed five straight years and went over three million for the first time in franchise history in 2000. This year marked the Giants’ fifth straight year of an attendance decline — even excluding the COVID-touched 2020 and 2021 seasons — and a decline of nearly 900,000 fans from 2016.

The signing of Judge almost certainly would boost season-ticket sales and ticket buying in general. Plus, the Giants have just $18.5 million committed to players in 2024. They could pay Judge, say, $40 million a season and continue to be huge spenders. They are one of the few big-market clubs with so little guaranteed money in the future. The Yankees, conversely, have five players signed for $109.5 million in 2024. Obviously, they can fit Judge at just about any price, but they would have — depending on Steinbrenner’s payroll tolerance — a lot less room to navigate elsewhere.

J.D. Davis #7, David Villar #70, Wilmer Flores #41 and Thairo Estrada #39 of the San Francisco Giants look on during the sixth inning of a game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on October 04, 2022 in San Diego, California.
The Giants have financial flexibility and the motivation of wanting to correct an attendance decline as they pursue Aaron Judge in free agency.
Getty Images

I still think the Yankees retain Judge. That, in the end — as with Cole — Steinbrenner deems Judge too vital to the near-term success of his franchise on and off the field, plus he simply does not want to worsen his relationship with a fan base that dislikes him.

But there has to be a Plan B because there are no sure things and — at minimum — the Giants are a giant threat.

For these purposes, let’s return to the 2013-14 offseason. That was the last time the Yankees had a homegrown star in free agency. It is not apples to apples. Robinson Cano was not as beloved or central to the Yankees’ off-field business as Judge is. But you can argue he was more vital to the offense of the 2013 Yankees than Judge was to the 2022 team. For example, Cano had 107 RBIs that year, and Lyle Overbay was second on the team with 59. Cano finished fifth in the voting for AL MVP — his fourth straight year in the top six. Injuries to Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira in particular left Cano surrounded by the fading embers of Travis Hafner, Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells, among others.

The Yankees’ offer to Cano was seven years at $175 million. The Yankees insisted the proposal was designed to keep their second baseman rather than be large enough to impress their fans that they tried, but not enough to actually retain Cano. It was not in the ballpark of the $240 million over 10 years he was given by the Mariners, who also had fallen substantially in attendance as non-contenders. The Yankees felt that was way too much for Cano.

Robinson Cano #24 of the New York Yankees hits an RBI single during the third inning in a baseball game at Yankee Stadium on September 7, 2013.
Robinson Cano in 2013, his final season with the Yankees.
Paul J. Bereswill

The blowback against Steinbrenner then also was substantial. He had intended on taking the Yankees below the luxury-tax threshold (then at $189 million) to reset the tax for the future. Instead, beset by criticisms that he was less motivated to win than his father, Steinbrenner OK’d a $458 million spree to land Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka.

Tanaka was a success, Beltran was fine, McCann was below expectations and Ellsbury a disaster.

So what happens if Judge leaves? Does Steinbrenner respond to the cheap/not-your-dad chorus by approving another substantial outlay? Or does the general failure of that strategy post-Cano lead to a different avenue?

It should be noted that after Cano’s departure, the hub of the Yankees’ next serious contender was rising in their farm system. In June 2013, thanks to compensation picks they received for losing Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher in free agency, the Yankees had three first-round picks, and took Eric Jagielo 26th overall, Judge 32nd and Ian Clarkin 33rd. Going into the 2014 season, Baseball America had those three listed, in that order, as Yankees prospects Nos. 5-7. It is lost to time, but before developing diabetes and getting hit in the face and breaking a bone near his eye during instructional league, Jagielo was viewed as the superior prospect to Judge even within the Yankees organization.

The consensus No. 1 Yankee prospect was Gary Sanchez. Greg Bird and Luis Severino were in the top 10. Miguel Andujar was starting to gain notice. And the Yankees still were holding out hopes for Dellin Betances.

Gary Sanchez #24 of the New York Yankees is greeted by Jacoby Ellsbury #22 of the New York Yankees after hitting a home run on September 27, 2016.
The last Yankees youth movement featured Gary Sanchez (right) … while the albatross contract of Jacoby Ellsbury (left) remained on the books.
Paul J. Bereswill

Could you argue the Yankees in the big picture would have been better off not going on that free-agent spree and instead letting the farm system grow and filling in the major league roster with the best short-term deals?

I would argue they are actually in a better spot to do that now than they were then.

OK, before I am accused of trying to save Steinbrenner’s money, I am not suggesting the Yankees not try to contend in 2023. At minimum, they should be spending every penny up to the first tax threshold ($233 million) to build a contender.

Why are the Yankees in a better spot now than they were heading into 2014?

The number of playoff spots has grown from five to six, and as the 87-win, sixth-seed Phillies exemplified in 2022, you can get in and go on a run.

Also, the Yankees’ best prospects are so much closer to contributing now than they were then. Betances went from an injury-prone and fading prospect to a revelation in 2014, and Shane Greene was a surprise blessing whom the Yankees then used after that season to obtain Didi Gregorius. But the others will still in the semi-distant future.

New York Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe bats during a spring training game on March 20, 2022.
Anthony Volpe
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Po

Oswaldo Cabrera, Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe might be able to play from Game 1 in 2023. Jasson Dominguez, Everson Pereira and Austin Wells are potentially in play before the end of next season. The Yankees have not done great in developing prospects, especially hitting prospects. The last time they had prospects who looked anything like this, Andujar, Bird, Sanchez and Jackson (Clint) Frazier (who was obtained in a trade) fizzled after uplifting debuts. Judge and Gleyber Torres (also acquired as a prospect) emerged.

But 2023 would be a time to potentially let the kids play and have a better idea moving forward. Whether it succeeds or fails, the Yankees will be positioned after the season (once they are out of Josh Donaldson’s contract and a year closer to being so with Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton) to play for free agents Manny Machado and Shohei Ohtani. I think one of the biggest baseball stories not getting a lot of attention right now that will grow over time is that Machado has an opt-out after the 2023 campaign. He will have five years at $150 million remaining on his deal after completing his age-30 season. If that year looks anything like 2022, when he finished second for NL MVP, Machado will be able to greatly exceed that $150 million in the marketplace.

Can the Yankees contend if they went this way? Sure. The strength of the 2022 team after Judge was their run prevention. And you can argue the defense will be even better in 2023 with a full season of Harrison Bader in center field and Peraza at shortstop. Cole, Severino and Nestor Cortes form a strong top three of the rotation, and perhaps a healthy Frankie Montas would make that a strong top four. Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loaisiga and Wandy Peralta are an excellent bullpen trio that grows to a superb foursome if Michael King returns from injury.

And the Yankees obviously do not have to stop here. They could go the 2013-14 offseason route by, say, signing Trea Turner to play short and Carlos Rodon to deepen the rotation then using Peraza and/or Torres in trades to address pitching and/or left field.

Manny Machado #13 of the San Diego Padres looks on during the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in game four of the National League Championship Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 22, 2022.
Manny Machado could become a free agent after the 2023 season.
Getty Images

But what if the Yankees went another way? Say they use their money on the winning one-year bids for Cody Bellinger and Michael Conforto to flank Bader. At minimum, that would keep the defense strong. And can the Yankees revive those lefty bats to join Stanton and Anthony Rizzo and perhaps Torres and/or the prospects to still deliver an offense with power (though not Judge-ian power) and more overall athleticism?

Do they want to do a multi-year pitching contract for Rodon or Kodai Senga to attempt to make the rotation/run prevention even stronger? The Yankees have had an organizational strength of developing and/or identifying bullpen arms. Is this a place to win a bidding war for a two-year deal for lefty Andrew Chafin or righty Chris Martin? Again, Steinbrenner’s payroll should be over $200 million, and the goal should be still to try to make the 2023 playoffs while setting themselves up to sustain long-term contention.

Remember that if they are in the playoff race in July, the Yankees can always augment the roster then or — in the opposite scenario — trade away pieces to deepen a prospect stockpile to go for it again in 2024. This is not a call to rebuild. 

And I think there is a final reason for the Yankees to consider a reset for 2023, but really, fans might want to stop here. Because this is about you.

I generally think the players being bothered by the booing at home is nonsense. Aside from perhaps St. Louis, every fan base boos what they find unacceptable in performance. Is the volume louder in New York? Sure. But I think this is mainly about a generation (both players and their chatty families) who cannot stay off of social media and therefore feel the wrath 24 hours a day, not just at the ballpark.

Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger makes a leaping catch on a line drive by San Diego Padres' Austin Nola during Game 2 of the NL Division Series on Oct. 12, 2022, in Los Angeles.
Cody Bellinger joined the pool of free-agent outfielders after he was non-tendered by the Dodgers.
AP

But I also do think Yankees fans have intensified a hostility toward the home side, from ownership down to the field, that is nastier than ever. Really, booing Judge in October felt like mob mentality gone wild — as if it were now the cool thing to do.

For the Yankees fans, is this about being without a championship since 2009? Is it heightened by not being able to outdo the hated Astros or having the rival Red Sox win four titles in this century? Probably all of that.

I appreciate I am never going to convince a certain kind of Yankees fan to be grateful for the constant presence of stars and annual contention. Because it is the alternative that really sucks — when seasons are over midway through.

I would believe there is a large subset of Yankees fans who are also football Giants fans (especially the older ones). Would you rather be the Yankees and have a team in contention every year, actually make the playoffs in 10 of 13 seasons since last winning a title and play for the pennant five times? Or the Giants, who in that same period have made the playoffs twice in 12 seasons (not counting what will happen this year) and finished under .500 in eight of them, but also have one championship? Is one title worth the miserable years of utter non-contention and unimportant games? Maybe.

New York Yankees shortstop Oswald Peraza (91) throws out Chas McCormick of the Houston Astros  during the seventh inning in Game 2 of baseball's American League Championship Series, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Houston.
Oswald Peraza is likely the Yankees’ best defensive option at shortstop for next season.
AP

I just think the Yankees have to change the relationship with their fans, if that is even possible. Nothing does that like unexpected success. And if the Yankees do not retain Judge, it gives the organization a chance with young, homegrown players (always something fans love more) to re-establish a feel-good vibe in The Bronx. It was this way in 2017, when the Judge-Sanchez-Severino Yankees made their surprising run to ALCS Game 7 in what was supposed to be a reset season.

I have come to realize there is no such thing as spending enough to satisfy the masses. I was blown away by how many Mets fans, for example, told me that a trade deadline of minor moves felt like the Wilpons again. Really? The team had an almost $300 million payroll under Steve Cohen after — among other things — working a deal for Francisco Lindor at $341 million before the 2021 season and awarding Max Scherzer the largest per-annum contract in history — by more than $7 million — before the 2022 season. Would there ever be such a thing as enough dollars spent and stars signed?

Again, I suspect the Yankees in the end will keep Judge. I think if they don’t keep Judge, Steinbrenner will demonstrate his seriousness of purpose by going big elsewhere. I’m not sure the second path would actually be the right one. And I’m not talking about what is right for Steinbrenner’s wallet. I am talking about the right path for continuing high-level contention for a long period.