Joel Sherman

Sports

Yankees would be wise not to upset Aaron Judge during arbitration

On the brink of this season, Brian Cashman said publicly what had long been his private thoughts: He told The Athletic that, had the Astros not been illegally stealing signs in 2017, his Yankees would have won that ALCS and the World Series that Houston instead captured over the Dodgers.

But if the Yankees were handed that imaginary title, then — by the same logic — shouldn’t Aaron Judge be viewed as the 2017 AL MVP? After all, he finished second to the Astros’ Jose Altuve. Wouldn’t that then allow Judge to weaponize against the Yankees what was weaponized against him in long-term negotiations prior to the season — that he was comparing himself to MVPs, notably Mike Trout, yet did not even have one of his own?

Judge might not need a pseudo-MVP much longer. He furthered his case for the 2022 version Thursday night with Altuve and the Astros in town. He completed a four-run ninth-inning rally with a walk-off RBI single that sent the Yankees to a 7-6 victory in The Bronx.

That the winner came 13 ¹/₂ hours before another substantial game for Judge says a lot about his steely focus.

His arbitration is scheduled for noon Friday. Once again the Yankees could make a MVP-less case, this time before three arbitrators on a teleconference call. Though I strongly sense this is a case they hope never to try.

The Yankees almost certainly want to settle before their side sits down at MLB’s offices and Judge and his reps do so at the Players Association. Judge has asked for $21 million, the Yankees have countered at $17 million in the last case on the dockets this year — normally cases are heard in February, but there was a lockout in place then and, thus, arbitrations had to be held uncomfortably during the season.

Aaron Judge belts the game-winning RBI single in the ninth inning of the Yankees’ 7-6 comeback victory over the Astros.
Robert Sabo

The midpoint is $19 million. I have spoken to multiple folks who have done cases on both sides who think that before a hearing the Yanks will take a last best shot to settle; perhaps offering $19 million-ish with an All-Star bonus (he is definitely making the AL team) and/or an MVP bonus that could get him toward $20 million.

The Yankees do not arbitrate often, but they have with players such as Chien-Ming Wang and Dellin Betances. Players attend the hearing, as Judge will, and can get upset hearing even the most sterile case because a team and MLB (which also participates) have to negatively portray a player against contemporaries to argue their side. Betances and his representatives felt the Yankees did so with extra vigor and it somewhat damaged that relationship.

Aaron Judge is seeking $21 million in his arbitration hearing.
USA TODAY Sports
Brian Cashman
AP

And the last thing the Yankees want is to have negativity invade what is, to date, feeling like a magical season with Judge as the lead magician. Plus, they ultimately want to reignite long-term talks, which led Gerrit Cole to wonder, “How scorched earth do they go for a guy they want to keep long term?”

Still, it takes two to deal. Judge has yet to be moved off of his top-of-the-market views. He rejected what even many veteran agents felt was a fair seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer by the Yankees this spring. The Yankees probably would have gone a bit higher. But Judge valued himself higher on and off the field.

So why would he back down now? George Springer for the 2020 season and Trea Turner this year were guaranteed $21 million in their walk years. But they were players going through the arbitration process for a fourth time, Judge is going through a third time — though his service time status of five-plus years allows him to compare himself to any player. But injury has kept him from accumulating the bulk numbers of Springer and Turner.

The largest raise for a third-year arbitration position player was the $7.1 million leap Marcus Semien made after the 2019 season. In a process that honors precedent, Judge would be asking for a much greater jump of $10.825 million from his 2021 salary. Judge, though, can score points where many others can’t — special qualities of leadership and public appeal. The Judge’s Chambers, for example, is unique to the Yankee slugger. Plus while the arbitrators in deciding Judge’s 2022 season are not allowed to consider his 2022 achievement, human nature would suggest a subliminal message would work to Judge’s benefit — he is in the midst of a hard-to-miss unforgettable season.

He is thriving because of a fantastic ability to compartmentalize. He rejected $200 million-plus and is honoring the gamble on himself with his overall best season to date. With his arbitration hours away, he socked a winning hit. He has not detoured from his focus or team-first leadership. If he needed a character witness, Yankees employee Aaron Boone said, “He means everything to this team and everything to this fan base. He embodies all you want in your superstar player.”

Judge, who said he would talk about the arbitration after Friday’s hearing or non-hearing settlement, has been unflinching and unflappable with a lot at stake. As Cole said, “He’s probably convicted to [his viewpoint] and has accepted whatever may come with it either way a long time ago.”