MVP? Champion? Captain? Expectations sky-high for Aaron Judge in Year 3

TAMPA, Fla. -- At this early stage of his career, Aaron Judge's résumé already reads like a dream of a baseball-loving 11-year-old.

Home Run Derby champion. Fifty-two homer season. Rookie of the Year. Seven October bombs in back-to-back playoff appearances.

After an eventful first two seasons that have featured several milestones and accolades -- and yes, injuries -- what aside from winning a World Series is there for the 26-year-old New York Yankees superstar to accomplish in Year 3?

Ask him, and he'll tell you he hasn't even scratched the surface.

"See, that's kind of the thing that drives me, to be honest," Judge said in front of his George M. Steinbrenner Field locker earlier in spring training. "Nobody really knows. I don't even know.

"People can speculate and say, 'He's like this guy, he's like that guy.' But that unknown is kind of what drives me. Like, how good can you be? How good could somebody be? Just having that constant motivation of the unknown is kind of what pushes me."

The projection sites have weighed in on what kind of hitter they think Judge will be in 2019. At best, they expect him to sneak over the 40-homer plateau. At worst, they're anticipating he'll struggle to hit .250.

Those who see Judge every day scoff at those numbers. As the right fielder enters a new phase of his career, they're bracing for a whole lot more.

"I guess the next step is winning the MVP," veteran Yankees starter CC Sabathia said.

Do that, and bring a ring to the Bronx, and Judge will enter into the territory where one Yankees legend believes he belongs.

"His competition, for me, is in the monuments. His competition, for me, is the history of the Yankees," said Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, referring to the plaques in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. "If you look at some of the things he has done, he compares to [Babe] Ruth and [Lou] Gehrig. He's put up crazy numbers."

Judge's 83 homers outpace the totals Ruth, Gehrig and Mickey Mantle had through their first 294 games. Ruth, a two-way player at the beginning of his career, hit 24 home runs, Gehrig hit 34 and Mantle hit 46. In fact, Judge is tied with Bob Horner for the second-most home runs ever within that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Ryan Howard had more, with 87.

Judge's career OPS of .963 also is the best among that group of Yankees Hall of Famers at the same point in their careers.

"His next steps to me are just a matter of him staying healthy," Jackson said. "If he stays healthy, he flirts with 50 home runs. He flirts with 125 RBIs. If he hits 65 [homers], there would be no one who would be surprised."

Judge already has fought through shoulder and wrist injuries. The shoulder issue nagged him as a rookie and was surgically repaired at the start of last offseason. Because that rehab lasted virtually all of last winter, Judge wasn't able to prepare for the 2018 season the way he had hoped.

Then, last July, with the shoulder healed and Judge on the fringe of the MVP discussion, a 94 mph fastball from Kansas City's Jakob Junis hit him on the right wrist, and the resulting chip fracture landed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

Judge was on the shelf until mid-September, but after his return he went on a power-hitting rampage with three home runs in the Yankees' brief five-game playoff run.

With the wrist and shoulder 100 percent healthy, Judge was able to train this offseason the way he wished he could have a year ago.

"Getting a chance to hit, doing some things defensively, working on some things in the weight room," Judge said, "that's where you see those changes and those improvements in your game and where you can just keep improving and adding."

Judge's work included two-a-day sessions in the batting cage.

"If he's feeling something that morning, he wants to go to the cage that night and be like, 'This is what I'm working on today, and this is what I need to get better,'" said close friend, offseason training partner and teammate Tyler Wade.

Whenever he witnesses Judge's drive up close, Wade -- whom manager Aaron Boone praised last week for his early spring training production -- believes it pushes him to work harder too. Judge's work ethic reminds Wade of another former Yankee.

"The way he goes about his business, man, he's kind of like Derek [Jeter]," Wade said. "I never played with Derek, but just talking with him and being around him a couple of years, [Judge] took a lot out of his book.

"Now, I'm not really comparing the two or anything like that, but he's got that leadership mentality and he wants the best for his teammates and himself, and he just wants to win."

Wade is far from the only person to have seen similarities between Jeter and Judge. After all, as was the case with Jeter early in his career, Judge has been dubbed the face of the Yankees, if not the face of baseball as a whole.

"He's handled it well," Sabathia said. "Just the whole thing -- the scope of being in New York, being a younger guy, being recognizable, easy access for everything. And he does a good job of being prepared to play every day. That's hard to do in New York.

"[He's] a prime candidate to be the next captain."

Jeter, who retired in 2014 after 20 seasons with the Bronx Bombers, is the most recent Yankee to be named team captain. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has said Jeter should be the last player to carry that honor.

Captaincy or not, in order for Judge's name to one day be truly synonymous with the Jeters and Ruths and Jacksons and DiMaggios, he must win in the postseason.

Only then will room need to be made in Monument Park.

"He's going to be a great player, and his greatness will depend upon how well he plays in championship games," said Jackson, a special adviser for the Yankees. "He's going to have numbers, and I don't want to jinx him, I absolutely admire the guy and love even more that he's with us. His skill set is unique to see it up close every day.

"I don't know what the ceiling is for him, but his competition [is] the greats in the history of the Yankees."

To this point, Judge has made two playoff trips, but with exits in the American League Championship Series in 2017 and the AL Division Series last year.

Part of what has Jackson convinced that Judge will ultimately get a World Series ring is the slugger's ability to rise to the occasion.

"For me, I was moved by the moment. The moment moved me," said Jackson, whose most memorable swings came in his three-homer showcase in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series. "I absolutely think Aaron is moved by the moment as much as I was. He knows what's at stake."

For Mr. October, being in the moment is all-consuming.

"It's really making sure you're 100 percent, to give the effort that you need to give in order to be successful," Jackson said. "No bad swings. Make sure the barrel's on time with the ball. Make sure you're going to square the baseball. Making sure you understand the situation and how it's going to impact the game, during the time when it's all or nothing.

"Being able to execute in the one moment that you have. Look it in the eye, realize what it is. It's not just another day. It's not just another at-bat. Not just another trip. Not just another turn. It's the one that you have to have perfect execution. That perfect execution may not work out into a success because there are nine guys on a field working against you. So your chances are ... a 30 percent chance [is] really good. Some guys can turn that into a 40 percent chance. Fifty, some guys.

"That's where he wants to be."

For that reason, Judge's goal is consistency. He wants to be able to execute in those big moments as if they were in any other part of any other game.

"If you're a guy who's consistent, that's where you get trust from players, trust from other people," Judge said. "They know you're going to get the job done. Every big moment, I just want it to be like, with the bases loaded, two outs, bottom nine, I want everybody to feel like, 'Oh, it's just like the first inning, he's hitting second with a runner on. No big deal.'"

He won't be a finished product any time soon.

"I'll still be trying to improve until I'm 40 years old and I'm still talking to you, you know?" Judge said. "I'm still learning a lot of things about myself, things about my swing, things about my approach, things that will work, things that don't."

Said Judge: "I still have a long way to go."