TAMPA, Fla. — The Yankees’ first game of the 2022 regular season is three weeks away. By then, their biggest star, who is entering his final season before free agency, hopes to have clarity on his future with the team.
“April 7, we won’t be talking about this anymore,” outfielder Aaron Judge said on Tuesday, referencing the date of the team’s season opener at Yankee Stadium against the Boston Red Sox.
He added later: “The last thing I want to do is be in the middle of May after a good series and people talking, ‘Oh, you going to sign an extension?’ Or after an 0 for 4, ‘You should have signed that extension.’ We’ll try to get everything out of the way right now while we’re still prepping and getting ready for the season. But once it’s April 7 and a packed house in the Bronx, it’s going to be time to focus on winning ball games and that’s it.”
That game could be Judge’s final opening day in pinstripes. A first-round pick in 2013, he came up with the Yankees in 2016 and was the face of the franchise by 2017. That year, his first full season in the majors, he was an All-Star, the American League rookie of the year and runner-up for most valuable player.
Injuries have slowed the 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge at times, but his production has not wavered. Though he has missed nearly a quarter of the Yankees’ games (164 of 709 games) since the start of 2017 season, he is the fourth most valuable player in Major League Baseball in that span, according to FanGraphs, with his 24.5 wins above replacement trailing only Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Jose Ramirez’s.
Last season — Judge’s healthiest one since 2017 — he played in 148 games and led the Yankees in many offensive categories, including batting average (.287), home runs (39), runs batted in (98) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.916). He was also named an All-Star for the third time.
Judge’s powerful bat and sharp eye at the plate are well known. His agility on the basepaths and in right field, despite his size, can surprise fans. And in a clubhouse that has had its fair share of turnover through the years — the longtime Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner remains a free agent and catcher Gary Sanchez was traded away days ago — Judge is one of the longest tenured Yankees and known as a leader.
“It’s been great playing with him and watching him grow as a player and person,” said Giancarlo Stanton, another slugging outfielder whom the Yankees acquired before the 2018 season. “I hope the rest of our careers are together. And I think we’ll get it figured out.”
Another significant factor in any potential contract extension for Judge: his age. He turns 30 next month, so he will be 31 during most of the 2023 season, the first of whatever new deal he signs. While teams have increasingly shied away from long-term contracts for players in their 30s, given the aging curve, they have at least been willing to make exceptions for the types of stars who truly impact a team and draw fans to the stadium.
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Entering his final year before free agency, Judge is estimated to make roughly $17 million through salary arbitration. (The date by which to exchange salary requests is March 22, and it sometimes leads to long-term deals.) Judge has made it known for years now, though, that he doesn’t want to go anywhere else.
“As long as I’m playing baseball, I want to be wearing pinstripes,” Judge said on Tuesday, the second day of workouts at the Yankees’ spring training facility in Tampa. “It’s been an honor and a blessing to be here, getting a chance to play for this franchise, to be surrounded by so many great players and walk in the footsteps of so many other former great players that have played this game. There’s no better place to play on this planet.”
He added later, “I want to stay here in pinstripes. If that happens, that happens. But if it comes to it that it doesn’t, I’ll enjoy my memories here.”
On Monday, General Manager Brian Cashman said the team had not yet talked to Judge and his agent about an extension. And given that this spring training began late and is truncated after a labor dispute that ended just last week, the Yankees are on the clock, as Cashman put it.
“We’d like to have him back if we can,” Cashman told reporters on Monday. “Like everything else, just like trades and free agency, you have to be on the same page and common ground. The only way to find out is to have some conversations, first and foremost. Those will happen, and we’ll try to keep it as private as we can.”
He added later, “We’re happy he’s a Yankee, and it’d be great if we could make him a Yankee longer.”
Judge insisted on Tuesday that he wasn’t disappointed that the Yankees had not yet approached him with an offer to stay longer, nor was he concerned that they would run out of time.
“Because, to be honest, there’s so many other holes and positions and stuff that we got to fill,” he said. One of those holes was addressed on Tuesday when the team agreed to bring back first baseman Anthony Rizzo on a two-year contract.
Frustrated each postseason that the Yankees fall short, Judge called 2022 an important year. Like every year, the Yankees — the franchise with the most World Series titles (27) in M.L.B. but none since 2009 — want to finally end their championship drought.
Because of a New York City vaccine mandate for people performing in-person work, it was unclear if Judge would be able to play in home games this season. While the policy could change, Judge sidestepped a question about his vaccination status on Tuesday, saying he was more concerned about the first spring training games later this week.
“We’ll cross that bridge when the times comes,” he said. “But right now, so many things could change. So I’m not really too worried about that right now.”
In terms of his future, Judge’s spring training deadline isn’t new. Many players have successfully used that strategy in the past. (See: Francisco Lindor of the Mets.) So even though Judge has stated his preference, it would be hard to imagine him ignoring a fair or generous deal simply because it arrived in, say, May.
Judge also said on Tuesday that if nothing came to fruition before opening day, he would talk to the Yankees after the season. But until then, the Yankees are the only team allowed to negotiate with him. In the next off-season, Judge can talk to the other 29 teams.
Cashman noted that players generally preferred to have contract extensions done before the season so they did not have to think about them anymore. “But that’s what agents are for at the same time,” he added. “A lot of times you can have conversations, and the player is not a part of it until the very end.”