Aaron Judge's bet on himself paid off in a big way.
Judge has agreed to return to the New York Yankees on a nine-year, $360 million deal, sources confirmed to ESPN early Wednesday morning, giving the slugger nearly $150 million more than what the team had offered him in the spring.
He decided to remain with the Yankees after flirtations with the San Francisco Giants, the team located about 100 miles from where Judge grew up in California, and the San Diego Padres, who have made it clear they are open to making big moves this winter.
The looming specter of Judge leaving for San Francisco or San Diego gave him the last bit of leverage he needed to land the highest average annual salary ($40 million) for any position player in history, surpassing Mike Trout's $36 million per year. But Judge had already done the bulk of the work in improving his bargaining position with his incredible 2022 season.
The Yankees had pitched a seven-year, $213.5 million deal at the end of spring training, and when Judge rejected that offer without countering, general manager Brian Cashman revealed the team's offer in a news conference. Cashman's rationale for that decision was that the offer would be reported anyway and wanted transparency.
Judge felt differently, telling Time Magazine in an interview published Tuesday that he felt the Yankees' disclosure of the offer was meant to turn the fans and media against him as he moved closer to free agency.
But Judge never expressed those feelings during the season. Rather, he focused on performance and the team. Following a slow start that generated some boos at Yankee Stadium, Judge exploded. After going more than 50 plate appearances before hitting his first home run of the season, Judge clubbed 12 homers in May and 11 in June -- and then he got really hot. In the second half of the season, Judge hit .349 with a .502 on-base percentage and .785 slugging percentage.
As Judge continued to produce after the All-Star break, he all but single-handedly saved the Yankees from one of baseball's greatest collapses. As the Yankees' big lead in the American League East nearly evaporated, Judge propped up the offense with seemingly daily heroics. In one series against the Toronto Blue Jays, he scored every run.
Judge hit his 60th homer of the season on Sept. 20, tying Babe Ruth's 1927 mark, then matched Roger Maris' AL record with his 61st on Sept. 28 in Toronto. On Oct. 4, Judge passed Maris with a first-inning homer off the Texas Rangers' Jesus Tinoco.
Last month, Judge was named AL MVP for a season in which he hit .311 with 133 runs and 131 RBIs.
The Yankees have a long history of holding the line in contract talks, even with their own superstars, from Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter. But the pressure on owner Hal Steinbrenner to sign Judge was perhaps unlike anything he had faced before, because of Judge's production and popularity among Yankees fans.
Steinbrenner spoke with Judge repeatedly after the Yankees were eliminated in the AL Championship Series by the Houston Astros and, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan, made an offer of about $300 million over eight years early in the offseason.
The Yankees' uncertainty about Judge's intentions only grew. In past negotiations, including those in the spring, Judge's side would respond with a simple "no" rather than providing a counteroffer. As Judge met with the Giants and Padres, the Yankees weren't sure what he would do. Nervousness grew within the organization to the degree that the front office prepared possible Plan B's, such as a pursuit of a shortstop, maybe Xander Bogaerts.
Judge flew to San Diego on Monday, according to Passan, to meet with the Padres, who had previously made a record-high but unsuccessful offer to Trea Turner. Steinbrenner pushed his offer to $360 million -- nearly 70% higher than what the Yankees offered just eight months ago, a reflection of Judge's value to the franchise and to the spiking free agent market.
"Hopefully, Hal Steinbrenner is the Mariano Rivera of these negotiations and was able to close something out," Cashman said Wednesday.
"Hal Steinbrenner has been the tip of the spear with this one," Cashman added. "... Our organization has tried to stay connect in every way possible and Hal Steinbrenner directly with Aaron Judge as well to make sure that there was gonna be no stone unturned and there was no effort missed in our discussions. When Aaron Judge make a final decision of what he wants to do with his professional career, as he moves forward, that there would be nothing left unsaid, or nothing left undid."
Moving forward, the Yankees might have hard choices shaped by the contractual obligations on their books. They already owe about $105 million annually to Judge, pitcher Gerrit Cole and outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, along with long-term deals for DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks. They need to identify a shortstop, another starting pitcher and bullpen help.
But all that might feel a little easier now that they have retained their franchise anchor and clubhouse leader in Judge, who appears to be the heir apparent to Jeter as the team's next captain.
MLB Network first reported that Judge would re-sign with the Yankees, while The Athletic first reported the terms of the agreement.
ESPN's Joon Lee contributed to this report.