The biggest threats to Yankees reunion with Aaron Judge

Theory goes away sometime this weekend. Whenever the final out is recorded in the 118th World Series on either Saturday or Sunday — at that moment — anyone eligible for free agency becomes a free agent.

That means Aaron Judge can begin talking to any team in the majors. There is still a five-day “quiet period” during which contract terms cannot be discussed, but let’s just say I do not think all of those discussions are limited to getting to know each other and asking about the weather in the inquiring team’s town.

At minimum — even if all the teams obey the five-day moratorium after the World Series — these initial meetings still would fall into the first-date category, and some percentage of the time, first dates lead to second dates and in some cases, even marriage. Judge and every other free agent will be out in the wild, and by the end of next week, they will be able to sign wherever they want.

It is an offseason of fascinating free-agent cases. Can Jacob deGrom outdo Max Scherzer (three years, $130 million) in the marketplace? What does the industry think of Michael Conforto after he missed a year? Does anyone still think having Aroldis Chapman on a roster is a good idea? Which shortstop will get more — Carlos Correa or Trea Turner? Just how much of a free-for-all will there be for Japanese pitcher Koudai Senga?

And there are a lot more.

With the conclusion of the World Series will come free agency for Aaron Judge, whose return to the Yankees is not certain.
Corey Sipkin

But Judge looms largest. He is the game’s biggest star at the peak of his powers, coming off of one of the greatest seasons ever for the most storied franchise in the sport. I still would think the most likely scenario is that Judge winds up back with the Yankees. But I felt much stronger at this time last year that Freddie Freeman would end up back with the Braves, and that didn’t happen. The negotiations turned contentious, and both sides headed in different directions — Freeman, at the least, reluctantly.

There are no sure things. So before Judge can officially dance with other partners, let’s use 3Up to take a look at a few intriguing items surrounding his free agency:

1. Steve Cohen. You could convince me the Mets never will have a meaningful conversation with Judge and you could convince me they will sign him to a record contract. My gut says the Mets are not going to be big factors because they have so many issues to address this offseason.

But a group of non-New York executives scoff at what they portray as my naivete. They say I am trapped by thinking about the ways things are always done and that Cohen is not a “how they were always done” guy. That, like with his art collection, he has the money and aggressive bent to simply bypass normal auction processes and just pay what it will take to get what he wants. They say if the market for Judge gets to $300 million, for example, Cohen can go to $400 million or $450 million, and the difference is a rounding error in his portfolio.

New York Mets owner Steve Cohen waits for the team's baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday, Aug. 31, York.
Is Mets owner Steve Cohen willing to defy convention to bring Judge to Queens?
AP

That, for example, spreading an extra $10 million more per year over 10 years is not something that would make Cohen blink, much less stop from landing a once-in-lifetime — again, think about collecting art — piece. For the appeal is not just Judge’s talent, though the talent is great. But when else would Cohen be able to take the face of the franchise away from the Yankees? One outside executive said there is no way that Cohen missed Hal Steinbrenner being booed at the Derek Jeter ceremony at Yankee Stadium. He will understand what the reaction of the Yankees fan base would be if Steinbrenner let Judge leave after a 62-homer season … to go to the Mets.

Ask 100 Yankees fans who their favorite player is and, what, 95 say Judge? The final five votes are divided among a few others. That is the level of player on and off the field Cohen would be taking away from the Yankees. Not from Boston or Philadelphia or Los Angeles. But the best, most popular player from the other side of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. It is a one-time opportunity.

If he landed Judge, Cohen probably could expect a few thousand new season-ticket buyers and for his team store to sell the heck out of Mets Judge jerseys. So a significant portion of whatever contract he gives instantly will begin paying for itself. And he also would — for a fan base that cares about such things — be doing everything in his power to make this a Mets town.

Now, Cohen has insisted such stuff does not drive him. He says New York is big enough for both teams and that damaging the Yankees does not bring greater joy to his day. On “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman,” Cohen said he expects to have a payroll in the $300 million range again. And it would be hard to stick to that total while incorporating Judge plus all of the other roster ingredients the Mets are likely to have to add to view themselves as a 95-win-level top contender.

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees walks on the field during the first inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field on July 26, 2022 in New York City.
Adding Judge would expand the Mets’ payroll significantly, but also would expand their ticket and souvenir sales.
Getty Images

So, at his word, Cohen does not seem likely to play for Judge and initiate an intra-city war with the Yankees. But understand what a wild card Cohen is in all of this. There are so many in the industry who see him as a bogeyman capable of anything. Capable of telling Judge and his representative, for example, to come for a meeting ready to do business, ask what he wants and tell him, “Fine, I will do that, but if you leave the room and shop elsewhere, the offer is rescinded.”

One executive said he would bet the Mets are more focused on running through scenarios such as: Should we sign deGrom or Edwin Diaz and Brandon Nimmo? But how different will those salary numbers be compared to including Judge as an alternative? Or maybe it isn’t an either-or scenario because Cohen can afford what he wants to afford. He is losing a lot of money annually right now to run the Mets. And you will find those in the game who say the super-rich did not get that way by losing money and agreeing to lose even more. But there also are those who say Cohen is getting special returns on his investments — joy from assembling a World Series contender and the adoration of fans to improve his public reputation.

Ultimately, it all could come down to this: The Yankees need Judge on and off the field. But it is not what the Yankees need. It is what Cohen wants. And if Cohen wants Judge, think about the implications to this offseason.

2. The Giants. After the 2018 season, it was repeated so often that the Yankees needed a high-end starter and that Patrick Corbin grew up in upstate New York as a Yankees fan, their union seemed predestined. Except Corbin signed for six years at $140 million with the Nationals. The Yankees simply did not value Corbin at that figure.

Fans enter the stadium for the San Francisco Giants opening day game against the Miami Marlins at Oracle Park on April 08, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
San Francisco’s Oracle Park would represent a homecoming of sorts for Judge, who grew up in Northern California.
Getty Images

Something similar is going on with the Giants now. Judge grew up in Northern California as a Giants fan. The Giants have pledged to spend on difference-makers this offseason. So Judge repeatedly has been linked to the Giants — without either player or team publicly stating their desires.

I do expect the Giants will be involved. And if he ends up a Giant, sure, of course. A lot of teams are going to float a lot of concepts. Will the Giants or Dodgers or some other club offer, say, five years at $250 million — $50 million a year — to avoid taking Judge (who turns 31 in April) beyond his mid-30s? Will there be eight- and nine- and 10-year bids to try to lower the average value?

The Yankees offered a seven-year, $213.5 million extension last spring training. That doesn’t even feel like ante right now. Is $300 million the baseline? Or $44 million per season? Or a combination? This is what happens when free agency begins — we begin to find out what the actual market is. And, in this situation, how many teams feel comfortable making the giant offer?

3. Which brings us to the Yankees and Judge. The Yankees can talk about diversifying by trying to sign Carlos Correa and Justin Verlander (as one example) with the Judge dollars. Judge can bat his eyes at the Dodgers or Giants or Cubs or another at least half-dozen clubs.

But is the true goal of both parties to reunite? If so, a lot of what we will see for the next month-plus is theater designed to make the other side blink. This is what happened with Freeman and the Braves until bad communication and bad feelings set in and a divorce ensued.

New York Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner speaking to the media outside the Yankee clubhouse, after practice at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees Spring Training home in Tampa, Florida.
After Judge turned down an offer of $213.5 million in the spring, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner may have to offer a contract worth somewhere north of $300 million.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Or will Hal Steinbrenner insist on not playing such games. Will he freeze the Yankees’ offseason by telling Judge to find his market and get back to them for the last bid? Will Judge not see that as an act of goodwill but a strategy designed to make all other bidders feel negotiating is fruitless and the Yankees will just win in the end?

What we do not know yet is whether Judge has privately told his representatives to do what is necessary to squeeze every dime possible, but in the end that he has to end up a Yankee. We don’t know whether Steinbrenner has told Brian Cashman to engage the market but not to initiate the process of replacing Judge until the slugger finalizes a decision.

Is this all elaborate role-playing, in other words, with an obvious ending? Or does the opening of free agency really open up all possibilities? This has been thought about for a while now. But the thinking portion is nearly closed.

Judge is just days away from being able to talk to any team about his services and around a week away from — if he wanted — signing a contract to leave the Yankees.

This is no longer a theory.

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