The 6-foot-7, 282-pound Aaron Judge is such a force of nature, he might be powerful enough to bend Yankees history and change the landscape of legendary careers.
With each mighty swat, Judge jumps closer to becoming the biggest name in all of major league baseball. Even before his near 500-foot homer Sunday at Yankee Stadium, Judge was the leading All-Star vote-getter in the American League.
Judge is smashing baseballs today. In the future, he might put a hammer to the idea that Bryce Harper, scheduled to become a free agent following the 2018 season, is destined for pinstripes.
The premise for the Harper-Yankees marriage has made a lot of sense from the start. But it has been built on a few assumptions:
1. The Yankees were supposed to be in rebuilding mode, with their popularity waning, going into 2019. They’d need a big-name box-office draw to add excitement. Harper, who wears 34 because it adds up to Mickey Mantle’s No. 7, would be a natural.
2. The Yankees, having cleared their payroll, would be willing to spend the $400 million or so it would take to sign Harper because he’d have just turned 26 in October of 2018.
3. At that point, the Yankees’ young players were supposed to be reaching maturity, making Harper a final ingredient in another possible dynasty.
But Judge might be crushing those assumptions like 92 mph meatballs. At the least, if Judge continues to hit close to this — right now, he is a Triple Crown leader — he will be the most marketable player in the game. His impact will likely stop the downward trend of the Yankees’ attendance. He might eliminate any ancillary reasons — besides winning — for signing Harper.
For the Yankees, Judge is a financial double threat. His salary is a bargain and his production is potential future leverage.
While Harper’s free-agent clock started when he was young — he’ll be a free agent in his mid-20s — the 25-year-old Judge won’t be eligible for free agency until he’s 31. Judge is making the league minimum of $535,000 this year with only a minimal pre-arbitration raise due next year, while Harper will receive nearly $14 million this year and nearly $22 million next season.
Harper still could end up in the Bronx in two years, but if Judge is the real deal, then the Yankees will be a bit less desperate — and in a much better negotiating spot when they sit in front of Harper’s agent, Scott Boras.
The Yankees also might try to one day relatively soon (read: over the next couple of years) sign Judge to a long-term deal, using the advantage of eligibility for free agency being so far off to pick him up at a discounted price. This would allow them to retain the resources to sign Harper, which makes for the tantalizing prospect of a 2-through-5 combination of Gary Sanchez, Harper, Judge and, if he gets right, Greg Bird.
By the winter of 2018, it will likely still be pretty enticing, but the Yankees might need to find pitching instead of another outfielder. Their system is deep with Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler at Triple-A and some nice looking prospects at the lower levels. And it’s not just about outfielders.
Gleyber Torres, one of baseball’s best prospects, could be a Yankee by next month and another star who blocks a potential free-agent signing like Manny Machado. With Starlin Castro at second and Didi Gregorius at short, Torres could move from the middle infield to third base in the Bronx.
But Torres is still a prospect who’s yet to do anything at the major league level. Judge, though, is doing it all.
He is the most fascinating man in baseball, from his quirky habits to his Jack Armstrong, all-American values of putting the team first. When asked a question about himself, Judge nearly always turns it into praise for his teammates.
When he begins a game, he pops in two pieces of gum and, for good luck, doesn’t switch out those pieces until he makes an out. When he runs in from right to end an inning, he always waits at the dugout to let his outfield teammates enter first.
This is all part of the legend of Aaron Judge. It’s still early in his career. Maybe somehow this is all a mirage, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Judge is making Yankees history — and, possibly, changing it too.