It’s mid-November, 2017. Aaron Judge has just been unanimously voted the American League Rookie of the Year. Yankees fans are excited about their new superstar and the expectations for the Bronx Bombers going forward are sky-high.
Over the offseason, Judge essentially becomes the face of baseball. Sure, he might not have been the absolute best player in the league, that title belonged (and still belongs) to Mike Trout. But Judge was the best player in the biggest market in the world. Under the bright lights of New York City, there was no bigger personality in baseball than Aaron Judge.
He had commercials and sponsorships galore, and he was even the cover athlete for MLB The Show 18. He was the first player to be the cover athlete following their rookie season in the over 20-year history of the game.
He set a record for most home runs hit by a rookie when he hit 52, making the All-Star game, winning a Silver Slugger and coming in second to Jose Altuve in the AL MVP race. Knowing what we know now about Astros players in 2017, Judge probably should have won the award. That same year he led the AL in walks (127), the MLB in strikeouts (208) and hit the most towering home run I have ever seen in person.
It may have been 457 feet, but Aaron Judge made it feel much farther.
— Today in MLB (@TodayintheMLB) August 17, 2017
They didn’t make it to the promised land in 2017, but they did get all the way to the ALCS only to lose to the trash can band. Even though they didn’t play in the Fall Classic, it was supposed to be a sign of great things to come for the Yankees franchise.
Judge’s rookie year in 2017 was supposed to be just the start of an illustrious career for the Yankees’ new franchise cornerstone. He was supposed to lead the Yankees back to the World Series for the first time since 2009.
Fast forward to October of 2020, and the Yankees have lost in the playoffs once again, this time not even making it to the ALCS, losing to the division rival Tampa Bay Rays in five games in the ALDS. Judge … wasn’t great. Sure, he hit three home runs throughout the postseason run, but those were three of just four total hits in 30 at-bats.
Still, I’m not going to hold that against him, everyone has bad stretches of games. During the regular season, Judge was really good, hitting .257/.336/.554 — not quite 2017 levels, but very good nonetheless. The issue is he only played in 28 games. For over half the season, the Yankees didn’t have Aaron Judge in their lineup.
The replacements played admirably, but in the end, Judge was the one supposed to be out there every day, not Clint Frazier or Mike Tauchman, the main two who joined Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks in the starting outfield. Frazier and Tauchman each played over 10 more games than Judge, and yes, Frazier blossomed into a legitimate everyday outfielder, but that wasn’t the plan going into the season. The Yankees got really lucky Frazier played so well and became someone they could count on, because they couldn’t count on Judge.
Aaron Judge is a phenomenal baseball player. He’s one of the best home run hitters in the MLB while still managing to hit for a solid average. Sure, he strikes out a lot, but that’s generally accepted when you average just over 12 at-bats per home run for your career.
He just can’t stay on the field.
From 2018-20, Judge has hit the IL four separate times. His first trip to the IL in 2018 can be considered a freak accident, as he got hit on the wrist with a pitch. That happened on July 26, game No. 101 on the season for the Yankees. He didn’t touch the field again until September 14, in total missing 45 games. However, that number is really 47, because he didn’t even have an at-bat on the 14th. He simply came in to play right field in the eighth inning and finished out the 11-0 blowout of the Toronto Blue Jays. It was Sept. 18 when he made his first return start, on game No. 150 for the season.
His 2019 IL trip was because of an oblique strain, which is a lot more concerning. That’s a muscular issue. It’s his body not being able to take the day-to-day strain of being a baseball player. This happened on April 20, game No. 20 for the Yankees. He didn’t play again until June 21, game No. 75 on the season. That’s another 54 games missed.
Then, in 2020, he first hit the IL with a strained calf after game No. 17, missing nine games from August 12 to August 25. He returned to play on the 26th but didn’t even make it through the game, getting pulled in the 6th inning due to calf tightness. That calf put him back on the IL for another 21 games, making his return for good on September 16, game No. 49 on the season.
From 2018-20, Judge has only played in about 63% of Yankees games. You can’t build a franchise around that.
He’s also 28 years old. He has two years left of team control, so when he hits free agency he will be 31. His level of superstardom is going to command a massive deal, and that would be a huge mistake. If he can’t stay healthy now, what makes you think he will as he keeps getting older? The injuries are more than likely only going to become more common. Someone will pay him $30-plus million a year over eight, nine or even 10 years, and whichever team does that will be making a huge mistake.
So, the Yankees have two options.
Option 1: Keep Judge and have him play out the remaining two years of team control in the Bronx. It’s not an inherently bad idea, as they would keep Judge for a World Series push for the next two years. They just have to cross their fingers that he can stay relatively healthy and actually play during those two seasons. Then, they have to let him walk. I repeat — you cannot give him the contract he’s due.
Option 2: Trade him. Get something back for him before he walks. His value is still sky-high, some team will take the chance and hope his injury woes are behind him, that’s just not a bet I’d be willing to take. I don’t know what the right package for him would be, but I do think the Yankees could either get another star-caliber player or a couple of star-caliber prospects in return. Either way, it would be a win.
The Yankees already have a bunch of money tied up in Giancarlo Stanton, another injury-prone outfielder, who is in-fact only two years older than Judge. He’s on the books through 2027. It wouldn’t be wise to add another one.
Yes, they are the Yankees, a team with seemingly unlimited money in a league without a hard cap, so they could just bite the bullet, give Judge his contract and deal with the injuries when they come. I just think there are so many smarter places to put your money than a will-be 31-year-old injury-prone outfielder.
It’s not going to be popular, but the smart move for GM Brian Cashman would be to trade Aaron Judge away from New York while he still has a lot of value.