I have planted my flag that I don’t expect the Chicago Cubs to be among the serious pursuers of Aaron Judge this offseason, and it would certainly be fun for them to make me look foolish.
When Judge and the Cubs have come up in the same sentence – rare, but it’s happened – my general reaction has been: yes, any team would love to have him, but at the price point he’ll be looking for, the Cubs are likely to be better served spending those massive long-term dollars elsewhere. Given that the corner outfield is one area where the Cubs are reasonably well set for next year and beyond, and given that I’m not sure Judge is being viewed as a center fielder even for 2023 (which, yeah, the Cubs definitely have a need there), I expect the Cubs to be more aggressive on the big-time shortstops and front-of-the-rotation arms.
Anyway, none of that is to say that Judge wouldn’t be a MASSIVE upgrade to the Cubs’ offense, or that I’m just going to ignore it when Jon Heyman writes this (emphasis mine):
Judge was seeking in spring to be in line with Mike Trout’s $36 million annual salary, according to sources, and now the early hints are that the Yankees may accede to his original asking price, and perhaps go even a bit higher. Some suggest he could even threaten Trout’s record $360 million total deal — though if he does, that may have to be elsewhere. The $300 million mark seems to be a more common guess (four agent guesses are below) but some see it going higher.
“He certainly will clear $300 million. But is he closer to $400 million than $300 million? Maybe,” one rival executive says. “He’s that important to the wealthiest team.”
The current belief is that the Yankees prefer not to go to $40 million a year — or certainly not to $400 million total for Judge, who is 30, as they recall the lengthy deals for 30-somethings Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols, and certainly their own Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees envision the main competition coming from the Giants and maybe the Cubs and Dodgers (though LA is known to prefer shorter deals at higher AAVs; Bryce Harper didn’t go for that when they tried $160 million for four). But of course, you never know in free agency.
OK, so that’s Heyman saying THE YANKEES view the Cubs as among perhaps the main competition for Judge. That isn’t agent speculation or Heyman’s own. It’s Heyman reporting something he’s heard from the Yankees. And that is WILD to me.
The current Cubs front office has a well-known aversion to monster long-term deals, and while Jed Hoyer definitely emoted a willingness to go after very high-AAV signings this offseason, it seems like that’s the strong preference over very long-term. As Heyman says, the Dodgers will probably want to go that route, too. And if you’re Judge, would you rather get, say, 10/$350M, or 5/$250M? These are made up numbers, but it’s not at all hard to see Judge preferring the larger, longer guarantee (and the Cubs not). Plus, let’s be real: in order to land Judge, you’re probably going to have to give him that 10/$350M *AND* give him an opt out at some point. So he gets the best of both worlds anyway.
This bears tracking, though. We do believe the Cubs have significant dollars available this offseason, and I suppose we can’t rule out their internal metrics concluding that Judge, even heading into his age 31 season, is a “value” on whatever deal he’s expected to land.
To be sure, though: the overwhelmingly most likely outcome here in an Aaron Judge free agency is that he re-signs with the Yankees. So keep that in mind.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why the Mets aren’t in there – I certainly was – Heyman hears that they don’t see Judge wanting to go across town, nor do they want to make things hostile with the Yankees. Seems a bit of an odd explanation, but that’s what he’s hearing.
If you missed some of my earlier thoughts on Judge the last time this came up:
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.