Aaron Judge has greatly improved his free-agent earning potential by being durable the past two seasons. Yet Jacob deGrom has not done irreparable harm to his stock despite missing more than a calendar year bridging 2021-22.
Free agency is fickle. The heart wants what the heart wants, and in baseball the heart wants nothing more than talent. Consider that the two storylines that have dominated baseball New York this season have been watching Judge and waiting on deGrom.
A more agile, athletic Judge nearly won the AL MVP last year and probably will this season, in part, because he has stayed on the field. He had the 17th-most plate appearances in the sport over the past two seasons entering the weekend.
DeGrom cost himself a third NL Cy Young last year by missing the second half of the season after doing a 1968 Bob Gibson impression over the first half. He was never a Cy Young factor this year, entering September with as many starts (six) as J.P. Sears.
Brace yourself, because the two biggest storylines of the offseason also are likely to revolve around Judge securing the most free-agent dollars and deGrom becoming the highest-paid player per year, perhaps ever. That will obviously be tied into where they will land.
You can make an argument that if they don’t stay where they are, that the Mets should sign Judge and the Yankees should sign deGrom — though I would strongly believe the Yankees would give Judge a piece of the team before letting him go to Queens and that if deGrom is leaving the Mets, then it is, in part, to leave New York.
But if you represented these guys and were trying to maximize the dollars, wouldn’t you at least have to let it leak that you are talking to the other New York team? Or will it not matter because the market will be so appealing that they do not have to threaten to switch boroughs as a ploy?
Most of their free-agent cases have been stated. So besides staying healthy the rest of this season — which is important — what is left to impact the most intriguing free-agency cases of all?
Judge can top Roger Maris’ 61 homers to set both the Yankees and American League records. That would make it even more difficult for the Yankees to let him leave regardless of the asking price — and as an attraction, that could only make his value to the rest of the industry all the greater. Of course, if he finishes with 59 homers, it is not as if that is going to hurt him.
Judge turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension ($30.5 million annually) before this season. The Yankees did not agree, in part due to durability concerns, with the Judge camp’s view that he deserved to be paid annually in Mike Trout’s range ($35.5 million per) and for as long (Trout’s contract takes him through age 38, the Yankees’ spring bid for Judge went through age 37).
I suspect that, to get Judge to stay, the Yankees now are going to need to go over what Trout earns annually and for just as long (at minimum) — I would set eight years at $304 million ($38 million per) as a baseline. Why would Judge accept less?
What are the Yankees’ alternatives? He is their best player on the field and their cash cow off it. He has proven he can handle New York — the only good thing for the Yankees about having Joey Gallo for a year was not being dumb enough to think he could be a free-agent option this offseason if Judge left.
Judge has carried the Yankees this season — the one player who has not been injured or regressive in the second half. The Yankees’ system is not close to delivering a difference-making outfielder, the second-best outfielder on the free-agent market is Brandon Nimmo, and unless the Padres are planning to pivot and re-trade Juan Soto, the Yankees cannot come close to replacing Judge’s on-field value. After ignoring an elite shortstop class last offseason, in part because they believed in the futures of Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe, are the Yankees going to try to buy Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson or Trea Turner as a Judge alternative?
After not trading Peraza or Volpe to bolster the roster at the trade deadline? After Peraza has now reached the majors and Volpe has made it to Triple-A? Is that really a better way to spend the dollars than to go minimum wage at shortstop for now and just meet Judge’s demands? At this point, pretty much everything that could fall in Judge’s positive financial future since he rejected the Yankees’ spring overtures has occurred, including this — the team most likely to land Judge in free agency if he were to depart, opens the 2023 schedule at Yankee Stadium. Can the Yankees really tolerate seeing Judge show up in The Bronx as a Giant on Opening Day next March 30?
The Mets do not have to worry about deGrom opening the season against them in 2023. Even if the scuttlebutt is accurate that he prefers to go South, the Marlins are not going to be signing him. The Braves? The Rangers?
Steve Cohen on The Post podcast, “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman,” said that he wants to retain deGrom. What hasn’t been publicly revealed — beyond that deGrom has said he will opt out of his 2023 salary to become a free agent — is what deGrom wants. Though it would be a pretty good guess to speculate he wants to top Max Scherzer’s $43.33 million average value on a contract.
And Scherzer has been helping him, as has Justin Verlander. Both have pitched brilliantly this year in their late 30s. Verlander, 39, was arguably the AL Cy Young frontrunner before a recent calf injury sent him to the injured list. Will that calf injury and Scherzer losing six weeks earlier with an oblique scare teams off to an older starter? Or — more likely — will the industry note that lots of young pitchers get hurt too, but not a lot of pitchers of any type are currently fourth (Verlander) and seventh (Scherzer) in the majors in pitching Wins Above Average (Baseball Reference).
Verlander is certain to opt out of his 2023 player option with the Astros and to join deGrom in free agency, trying to top Scherzer’s annual value. It may be just six starts, but deGrom has returned showing that when he does pitch, he is the best. He is an injury risk, but has a lot fewer miles than Verlander on his arm, and is five years younger. And remember Verlander and Noah Syndergaard pitched even less than deGrom has this year and secured substantial one-year deals in free agency. The skill and promise of deGrom is going to deliver more.
And, like Judge and Verlander, deGrom will have a postseason to further make a free agency case. What remains in the 2022 season for Judge, and especially deGrom, will contribute to the most interesting (and expensive) free-agent cases of the coming offseason.
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