Aaron Judge free agency primer: What will shape his next contract, and where Yankees star could land

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After the funeral dirges for the New Yankees 2022 season have all played, the thoughts of the team’s fans and observers will turn from yet another playoff defeat by the Houston Astros and toward the dominant storyline of the coming winter – Aaron Judge’s looming free agency.

Judge, coming off a 2022 campaign in which he clouted an American League-record 62 home runs, will be the most coveted of the 2022-23 class of free agents. Given his skills, the dominance of his walk year, and the prominence of the team for whom he may have played his last game, Judge without question will also be the most talked-about free agent of the coming offseason. So we’re here to do just that – talk about Aaron Judge and his forthcoming free agency.

Given that the offseason has not yet begun, there’s a lot of guesswork in what follows, but there are also some basic facts that will be germane to Judge’s market journey regardless of where he signs and for how much. Now let’s commence setting the scene for all of that with a quick look at each of the six factors that will shape Judge’s future.

Judge’s legendary walk year

As noted, Judge this season swatted 62 home runs, but that’s not the extent of his excellence in 2022. In 157 regular-season games, he slashed .311/.425/.686, which comes to a ridiculously lofty OPS+ of 211. Judge made a run at the Triple Crown, and he led the AL in walks. As has been the case throughout his entire career, he also boasted top-of-the-scale batted-ball metrics, which project continued elite production moving forward.

As well, Judge, despite his hulking physical dimensions, is no one-dimensional slugger. He stole 16 bases this season and took the extra base 50 percent of the time versus a league-average figure of 43 percent. Judge also spent the majority of his defensive innings in center field, and in the ALCS he reminded us that he’s capable of ranging snares like this one:

That athleticism bodes very well for Judge when it comes to his future aging curve and suggests that he’s going to retain his skills for a long time. That’s key for a free agent who in 2023 will be going into his age-31 season.

The Yankees’ attempts to sign him

Yankees brass has repeatedly expressed a desire to keep Judge in the fold by signing him to a long-term extension, and there were repeated negotiations to that end leading up to the 2022 regular season. Yankees GM Brian Cashman, in a departure from established norms, said publicly that the Yankees offered Judge a seven-year, $213.5 million contract extension late in spring training, which Judge refused. That wasn’t a competitive offer even before Judge’s legendary 2022 season, and the fact that Cashman crowed about it to the media suggests that he failed to realize or at least refused to accept that it wasn’t a competitive offer. Like so many other pending free agents, Judge had no desire to negotiate in-season, and as far as we know that was the last offer the Yankees made. If they had upped their proposal, then, well, they probably would’ve said quite loudly so.

The Qualifying Offer

Here’s a bit of a lesser consideration in this entire affair, but it’s one you’ll hear about soon enough. The Qualifying Offer (QO) is in essence a one-year offer that teams may tender to their pending free agents under most circumstances (players who have received a QO before or who were traded during their walk year are ineligible for the QO). The QO’s worth is an average of the top 125 salaries in MLB and will be worth $19.65 million for the 2023 season. If a player accepts the QO that’s offered, then he’s under contract for the following season at that year’s QO dollar figure and thus his free agency is tabled for another year. A player accepting the QO is also free to work out a multi-year extension with the team.

A team who extends a QO to a pending free agent is entitled to draft-pick compensation should that player turn down the QO and sign a major-league free-agent contract with another team. Depending on multiple factors – the value of the contract he signs, and the revenue-sharing and luxury-tax status of the player’s former team – that compensatory draft pick will fall at the end of the first round or at the end of competitive balance round B. On the other side, the team signing a free agent who turned down a QO must forfeit at least one draft pick and under some circumstances lose money from its international bonus pool, which is used to sign international amateur free agents.

In the case of Judge, the Yankees will without question tender him a QO, and Judge will almost certainly turn it down. Non-superstar free agents can see their free-agent markets tamped down a bit by the burdens of a QO and the loss of draft picks, but free agents of Judge’s caliber are basically immune to such effects.

When Judge becomes a free agent

Eligible players become free agents on Nov. 6. Following that, however, is a five-day Quiet Period in which free agents can negotiate only with the team they played for in 2022. On Nov. 10, players who haven’t re-signed during the Quiet Period become eligible to negotiate with any team. Nov. 10 is also the deadline for teams to make Qualifying Offers. After a players a QO, he has 10 days to decide whether to accept it, but he can negotiate with other teams during that time provided the Quiet Period has received result. In Judge’s case, he’ll likely refuse the QO immediately and be a part of the fray of free agents eligible to do business with any team starting on Nov. 10.

Judge’s next contract

According to Jon Heyman, Judge countered that Yankees offer with a proposal of nine or 10 years at $36 million per, and, again, that was before he went out and authored a 10.2 WAR that will probably lead to his winning the AL MVP award for 2022. Pitching a deal worth up to $360 million doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get that, but it’s a guidepost of sorts.

As for the contract Judge eventually signs as a free agent, whether it be with the Yankees or another suitor, our own Mike Axisa undertook a (very) deep dive into the matter in late September, when the historic breadth of Judge’s 2022 season was obvious . He landed on a possible deal of $342 million over nine years.

To expand this particular mind into hive territory, we added that figure to best guesses made by the remaining five members of the CBS Sports MLB writing and editorial staff and arrived at a crowd-sourced average figure, rounded off, of $358 million over nine years . Stated another way, our estimation is that Judge is going to sign a contract that runs through his age-38 season or so and pays him in excess of $350 million. Market conditions are fluid, of course, but that’s probably close to his price tag this winter.

Possible Judge landing spots

A return to the Yankees remains the most likely outcome. They’ve not been spending in line with their near-limitless revenues of late, but losing Judge would be a blow to an organization that already seems drained of energy. If Judge decides to ink elsewhere, then high-revenue clubs like the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants will be in the running. Potential dark horses include the St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, and – why not – the Houston Astros. This of course isn’t an exhaustive list, and every marquee free agency seems to yield one or more surprise suitors. That will probably be the case with Judge once the madness begins very soon.

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