NEW YORK -- When Aaron Judge took his last swing Sunday night -- a grounder for the final out of the 2022 American League Championship Series -- the biggest question of the Yankees' offseason began: Will the presumptive AL MVP be back in pinstripes next year?
After their playoff nemesis Houston Astros put an end to the Yankees' season with a 6-5 victory to complete a four-game sweep, Judge's manager and teammates hoped that his tenure in the South Bronx did not also reach a conclusion.
"Just an incredible season," Aaron Boone said of Judge's 2022 campaign, in which he hit 62 home runs to break Roger Maris' AL single-season record that had stood for 61 years. "Someone that I've grown close with and just admire and respect. And hopefully we'll see him in pinstripes for a long time. I don't even want to think about the alternative right now."
"I'd be real disappointed if he's not back; big shock if he's not back," offered infielder DJ LeMahieu, who was inactive the entire postseason thanks to a right foot injury. "But you just never know how that goes. I feel like he definitely wants to be here, but when it becomes a business, it changes a lot."
Judge will undoubtedly be one of the big, if not the biggest, names available in free agency after declining a seven-year contract from the Yankees that would have paid him $213.5 million from 2023 to 2029 in the hours before Opening Day.
The All-Star outfielder went on to have a career year in which he led baseball in almost every offensive category and surpassed Yankees legends like Babe Ruth and Roger Maris in becoming the new AL home run king, making him a front-runner for the league's MVP award.
In the aftermath of the sweep by the Astros, Judge said he had not thought about his upcoming free agency or whether that was his final game in a Yankees uniform.
"That's all going to run through my agent. I haven't even thought about the next step yet," Judge said. "But like I said, we've got time to figure it out."
Asked whether he had sought advice from teammates such as Giancarlo Stanton (13-year, $325 million extension) or Gerrit Cole (nine-year, $324 million free agent contract) about his upcoming foray into free agency -- which officially starts the day after the World Series -- Judge was quick to point out that Stanton was not a free agent and signed an extension with the Miami Marlins in 2014, and specified that Cole "had his mind set on where he wanted to be."
Nonetheless, Judge sounded wistful when he took a moment to describe his six-year career in pinstripes.
"Getting the chance to wear the pinstripes and play right field at Yankee Stadium, it's an incredible honor that I definitely didn't take for granted at any point," he said. "I always checked myself pregame, when I'd say a little prayer, I'd kind of look around the stadium and kind of pinch myself that there's very few individuals that get a chance to run out on that field and do that and play in front of the fans that support us throughout my whole six years here. It was a special time. I just kick myself for not bringing home that championship for them."
Judge did have a minor slip of the tongue when addressing the gap between the Yankees and Astros, who earned a berth in the World Series for the fourth time in the past six seasons. Judge used the term "we" for the Yankees finally getting over their postseason hurdle, having lost to Houston three times in the past six league championship series.
"This is never fun, but I think it'll definitely make, when we finally get there and secure this thing, it'll make it a lot sweeter, going through the tough times like this, that's for sure," Judge said.
And while Judge expressed once again his desire to continue wearing a Yankees uniform, he reiterated his free agent status.
"I've been clear about that since I first wore the pinstripes. But we couldn't get something done before spring training," he said. "I'm a free agent. We'll see what happens."