While we await the moment that Aaron Judge ties Roger Maris for the AL record in home runs – hey, 61 still feels like a special number – it’s already time to start discussing his free agency.
Judge is currently hitting .314/.421/.697/209 wRC+, has already been worth 10.7 WAR, and may well take home the MVP and the Triple Crown this year. He’s going to be an enormous story in free agency this offseason, and I’ll be paying a lot of attention.
No, I don’t say that because I expect the Chicago Cubs to be involved. Necessarily.
When Jon Heyman this weekend discussed the possible landing spots for Aaron Judge, the Cubs did get mentioned among just seven teams! … as a 150 to 1 shot. Less than a one percent chance.
That sounds about right to me.
For as much as I think the Cubs are going to spend aggressively this offseason, I think their dollars will do a little more if they focus on the impact tier of the starting pitching market and the group of top-tier shortstops. It’s not that Aaron Judge isn’t an immediate upgrade on any team, it’s that there are some other very valuable options available in free agency, too, and in areas where the Cubs don’t have nearly as much prospect power coming as in the outfield.
Again: that is not to say any of the Cubs’ outfield prospects, near or long-term, are going to be anywhere near Aaron Judge-level. It’s saying only that if you can sign, say, only two very large contracts in free agency right now, you’d opt for the areas where you’re likely to get the most three, four, five-year impact. To me, for this Cubs organization right now, that’s a top arm and a top shortstop bat.
Also? I still have concerns about a guy Judge’s size aging well into his 30s, especially if you’re signing him to be a perennial superstar like he’s been this year (before this season, he was a career .276/.386/.554/151 wRC+ hitter – still outstanding, but not nearly what he’s doing this year). Judge will play next season at 31, and while he’s been very healthy the last two years, he had three straight injury-impacted seasons before that. There are price levels where I just think the deal is not going to make sense for whatever team signs it.
To that end, Dan Szymborski asked at FanGraphs whether Judge will get the $300 million contract he likely seeks, and reviewed the ZiPS projections to help answer. The ZiPS system sees two more uberstar seasons for Judge (above 7.0 WAR), before he drops to 6.1, and then 5.0 in 2025 and 2026. A few more years in the 3.0-WAR range, and then he’s falling way off. I gotta say, that’s actually not too bad for a guy who is starting these projections at 31. Seven seasons in the 3.0-6.0 WAR or (much) better range? You would definitely start thinking about $300 million if you knew for sure you were going to get that.
The ZiPS projections therefore peg Judge’s value in free agency at something like an eight-year, $270 to $290 million range. That doesn’t actually seem all that crazy (which usually means it’s going to wind up much higher … ).
It’s not like I’d have a problem with the Cubs signing Aaron freaking Judge to that kind of deal. He is a transformative player in any lineup, and it’s not that hard to see him being part of a corner-turning Cubs team.
That said, my gut continues to tell me that if the Cubs are working with $300+ million in commitments this offseason, they’re going to want to add a top-tier arm (on a deal no longer than four or five years), and a top-tier shortstop/bat (on a deal in the six or seven-year range), which may not wind up costing that much more than Judge, alone. This Cubs front office is all about limiting the risks associated with super long-term deals, so that’s a factor. But I think they also know they need impact in multiple spots to really move the needle for 2023 and 2024.
OK, but I’ll admit it. As I type all this, the ridiculous fan part of me is like, “OK, but wouldn’t having Aaron Judge be awesome? Figure out the rest later? Root for that 1 in 150 shot!“
Oh, and if you were wondering, Heyman pegged the Yankees as the OVERWHELMING favorite to retain Judge, at 1 to 5 odds (83% chance). The next highest is Judge’s hometown-ish team, the Giants, at just 20 to 1 (5%).