What Aaron Judge Avoiding Arbitration Means For His Future in New York

Max Goodman

At first glance, Aaron Judge's one-year deal with the Yankees is a minor transaction. Entering his fifth year in the big leagues, the right fielder earned the first major pay raise of his career. Even with a new contract, seeing him in pinstripes in 2020 won't come as a surprise.

When it comes to keeping Judge in the Bronx for the rest of his career, however, avoiding arbitration with the face of the franchise is a monumental step in the right direction.

In his first year of arbitration, the Yankees and their 6-foot-7 slugger agreed upon a one-year, $8.5 million pact -- after earning $684,300 in 2019, Judge's salary increased by over 1,200 percent. 

Judge wasn't alone. On January 10, at the deadline for arbitration-eligible players to negotiate salary figures with their teams, New York agreed to deals with all nine Yankees up for arbitration. Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela were among those who exponentially increase their salaries for next season after solid performances in 2019. 

The alternative, for those that did not avoid arbitration, is often a sticky situation. Players and their teams go to an arbitration hearing where each side argues why their respective monetary figures are more accurate based upon the player's value.

In other words, team representatives take the time to explain why the individual isn't worth a certain contract -- to the player's face in court, the club explicitly points out their flaws.

The last time New York went through this process was 2017 with right-hander Dellin Betances -- now a member of the New York Mets. 

If you're searching for the epitome of an arbitration hearing gone wrong, look no further than Betances' case three years ago.

Betances asked for $5 million while the Yanks wouldn't budge north of $3 million. At the time, the right-hander had made three consecutive All-Star Games -- he was unquestionably one of the best late-game relievers in baseball. The New York City native had struck out over 125 batters in each of the past three seasons, making multiple appearances on Yankee Maven's 2010s Bronx Bombers All-Decade Team.

Nonetheless, the arbiter ruled in favor of the Yanks, forcing Betances to settle on the cheaper contractual agreement. Money aside, what was said during the hearing was what really resonated with the hurler and his representatives. As Betances put it at Spring Training that year, New York "trashed" him for over an hour.

The process, albeit a necessity in a business full of negotiations and financial stipulations, left a bad taste in Betances' mouth. It can't be easy to sit there as your team emphasizes why you aren't worth a certain value to them, especially when you feel deserving of a pay raise.

Yankees' president Randy Levine, on a conference call with reporters after the dust had settled in 2017, was brutally honest about Betances and why New York believed he wasn't worth $2 million more. 

“It’s like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees, I’m an astronaut,’ Levine told reporters, claiming the lanky righty's role as a set-up man deterred him from earning more money. "I'm not an astronaut and Dellin Betances is not a closer."

The relationship between Betances and the Yankees was immediately tarnished. Whether or not that played a role in the right-hander's departure this offseason, we may never know, but seeing as Betances was never offered an extension after the 2017 season, there certainly could have been more of an initiative to keep him in pinstripes.

It's worth noting that other Yankees -- those that spent their entire careers in New York -- also went through arbitration hearings. Both Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter went through the same process as Betances. The relationships between Rivera, Jeter and the Yankees evidently remained intact, but the situation in 2017 is a constant reminder of what could go wrong. 

Back to Judge. 

The Yankees' right fielder -- both on and off the field -- has cemented himself as a franchise player in New York. Although he has been susceptible to injury over the Yanks' last two campaigns, his 162-game average over his four-year career includes 45 home runs, 101 RBI and a slash line of .273/.394/.558. His potential to be one of the most dangerous offensive players in all of baseball is as tall as his stature -- that is, if he can stay on the field for a full season.

Aaron Judge Rounds The Bases After Home Run
No. 99 rounding the bases after a home run against Boston. Judge has hit 110 long balls in his four-year career in pinstripesAndy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

His performance in 2017 alone -- winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finishing second in the AL MVP race -- warrants inquiries about an extension to keep him around moving forward.

READ: Revisiting the 2017 American League MVP race with the Astros' sign-stealing scandal in mind.

Judge, like any of the arbitration-eligible players who agreed to one-year deals this month, is contractually permitted to sign an extension. It's up to the team and player to carry out negotiations, of course, but even with a new one-year commitment, offering Judge an extension is a valid option for the Yankees.

If not, the 27-year-old will go through the same arbitration process for each of the next two years until he becomes a free agent in 2022. Judging by how much more money he earned in his first year of arbitration -- just below an $8 million increase from his 2019 salary -- the slugger is poised to annually enlarge his pay for years to come as he continues to produce.

Here's where the financials get complicated -- in order to stay below the luxury tax threshold, it'll be a challenge for New York to keep every talented asset around during this window of contention. Gerrit Cole is set to earn $36 million each season until 2029 while Giancarlo Stanton is under contract and making north of $20 million each year until 2028. Not to mention the fact that DJ LeMahieu and James Paxton -- among others -- are scheduled to enter free agency following the 2020 season. Youngsters like Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar are slowly approaching their first pay raise as well.

When you compare Judge's salary to other elite outfielders around the league, paying the California native $8.5 million in 2020 is an absolute steal. 

In 2017 -- the lone big-league season in which Judge has played more than 112 games -- he had an 8.1 WAR, good for second best in all of baseball. Over eight wins above replacement in 2019 would have been over one run higher than the output of perennial All-Star outfielders Mookie Betts and George Springer. Those two, for instance, each received one-year deals worth $27 million and $22 million, respectively, in arbitration. Betts and Springer added approximately $10 million to their salaries from what they earned this past year.

By avoiding arbitration, Judge maintains what appears to be a healthy relationship with the Yankees while agreeing to a team-friendly financial deal. Now, New York has two options.

The Yanks can offer an extension worthy of Judge's significant value, forgoing arbitration each season and ensuring the slugger remains in pinstripes for the foreseeable future. Or they roll the dice and continue to give an arbitration-eligible Judge significant raises annually until free agency in 2022.

With less than one month to go until Spring Training, the clock is certainly ticking on free time to negotiate a long-term extension. That being said, there is no deadline -- it can happen at any time and Judge is certainly a candidate.

Bottom line, however, is that preserving their relationship -- one that benefits the team, player and love-struck fanbase -- ensures the club avoids a situation similar to Betances. If Judge wants to stick around in the Bronx, it's only a matter of time until he puts pen to paper on another historic deal.

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Comments (2)
No. 1-1

Love the story & he will make the Yankees a better team both on & off the field year in & year out.