Yankees off-season primer: Aaron Judge is top priority. Who can join him?

center of YankeesThe offseason concerns can be summed up in one number and two words: 62 home runs.

Yankees need to do whatever it takes to re-sign free agent outfielder aaron judge, who declined the team’s contract extension offer this spring that would have guaranteed him $213.5 million over seven years. Judge crushed an American League record-breaking 62 home runs to prove he made the right decision.

Judge led the majors in home runs, RBIs (131), OPS (1.111), OPS+ (211), total bases (391) and runs scored (133) and earned his third career Silver Slugger Award and was the heavy favorite. became. to win AL MVP honors.

Now, industry experts believe Judge has set himself up to earn in the range of $320 million over eight or so years, which would immediately become one of the largest free-agent contracts in MLB history. . The Yankees want to be the team that sends them those paychecks, but they also have other off-season priorities on deck. Here’s what the Yankees should focus on.

1. Put Aaron Judge in Pinstripes

While this is a no-brainer No. 1 priority for the Yankees, there have been some recent developments that should be encouraging for No. 99 fans.

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner didn’t mince words, nor did he hold back his optimism when describing the team and the league’s most prominent free agent. In a recent interview with Yes Network, Steinbrenner expressed unwavering confidence that the Yankees would convince Judge to stay in pinstripes, even going so far as to say that the organization would consider naming him the next captain if he Re-signs with the Yankees.

Now, there’s no need to fuel the fan base’s expectations about Judge potentially becoming the franchise’s first captain after Derek Jeter, who held that responsibility from 2003-2014, if Steinbrenner weren’t a near-certainty. that the judge will re-sign. Steinbrenner entered this still-young dynasty with a publicly stated assurance that Judge, like a good Yankee, would do what was best for him and the team and agree to a deal.

related: Did Aaron Judge Have The Biggest Walk Year In MLB History?

“My budget for Judge will be what I think we can do,” Steinbrenner said at last week’s owners meeting. “It’s not unlimited, obviously. But … in my opinion, we’re going to be able to sign Aaron. It won’t stop me from signing other guys.”

That last sentence from Steinbrenner is important here, as Judge is not only reportedly looking for a long-term deal in the $300 million range, but he also wants to be with a team that is committed to winning. Steinbrenner’s latest briefing suggested a pledge to Judge and the players that the front office will continue to spend big, even after Judge potentially signs, to build a complete, winning roster around him. This type of aggression has been rare for Steinbrenner, the son of late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was known for his win-at-all-costs attitude. Perhaps Judge’s free agency is the type of shakeup the Steinbrenner scion needed in order to spend aggressively.

Time will tell and the actions will do the talking, but based on Steinbrenner’s latest allegations Yankees fans should at least feel reassured about a whole lot of things.

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2. Maintain Rizzo

boyfriend first baseman Anthony Rizzo He became an integral part of the Yankees clubhouse this season, and his leadership and closeness with most of the roster, especially with Judge, were always key reasons for bringing Rizzo back to the Bronx. He also fit right into the Yankee culture and quickly gained respect from the fan base after being traded to the Cubs at last year’s trade deadline.

Rizzo had a slash line of .230/.338/.466 with 125 OPS+ in his two and a half seasons with the Yankees. This past season, the left-handed hitter matched his career high in home runs with 32. His wRC+ in 2022 was 132, suggesting he was 32% above league-average at the plate. His 10.6% walk rate last season was fifth best among Yankees hitters with at least 300 plate appearances. Furthermore, Rizzo’s left-handed bat is expected to have even more success next year and beyond, once defensive innings are banned.

Despite the many reasons the Yankees already had to sign Rizzo, once rumors of the Astros’ interest in the 33-year-old first baseman became public, it only became more important for Yankees GM Brian Cashman to get the deal done — and soon. So, before Astros owner Jim Crane could lure Rizzo into the defending champion’s domain, Cashman made an offer that Rizzo, apparently, could not refuse.

The Yankees and Rizzo reunited on a two-year, $40 million deal, including $17 million guaranteed in 2023 and 2024, followed by a $17 million club option for 2025 with a $6 million buyout. Rizzo already declined the team’s one-year, $19.65 million qualifying offer, and thanks to the buyout, he’ll end up with a little more annually than that QO, with the security of a multi-year deal to boot. .

3. Improve the outfield and lineup with potential target Masataka Yoshida

The first name everyone will think of this winter when discussing the Yankees’ outfield is, of course, Judge. But the Bombers have more work to do — especially in left field — with or without the return of their 62-homer slugger.

This past season, the Yankees had the 24th-ranked wRC+ (89) in left field among all 30 teams. In late July, he attempted to improve in that area by trading for left fielder Andrew Benintendi, but the 28-year-old, now a free agent, played in just 33 games for the Yankees before an injury ended his season in September. The Yankees could still bring Benintendi back and hope for better results when he’s healthy, but reports suggest they’re looking elsewhere – as far away as 7,000 miles away.

Japanese left-handed hitter and left fielder Masataka Yoshida is on the Yankees’ radar, according to multiple reports.

Yoshida, 29, attracted interest from MLB clubs after his OPS reached a career-high 1.007 this season. For the championship Orix Buffaloes, Yoshida walked 82 times and was hit only 42 times in 515 plate appearances. He has been described as an exceptional contact hitter, and that type of profile would fit really well for the Yankees at the top of their lineup. And like Rizzo, Yoshida’s left-handed bat is expected to find more success after MLB banned infield shifting. He certainly could be the spark the Yankees’ outfield needs.

4. Big Splash at Shortstop

In the event Judge doesn’t come back to the Yankees, they could pivot to using that money for a big splash at shortstop. Free agency class at shortstop goes deep this offseason, with stars Trey Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogarts and Dansby Swanson leading the group. The Yankees can afford to spend big and improve in the hole with one of those proven bats and gloves. If they do, they may be left with some interesting options.

The Yankees have had an influx of major-league-ready infielders – including prospects Anthony Volpe, Oswald Peraza and Oswald Cabrera, as well gleiber torres And Isiah Kiner-Falefa, In last week’s GM meetings, Cashman indicated the Yankees are focused on internal options rather than free-agency awards. Cashman specifically named Volpe, Peraza and Cabrera as infielders who would compete for that shortstop role in spring training.

related: Xander Bogaerts is the safest shortstop in free agency. why here

There is something to be said for the fact that, seven years after Jeter’s retirement, the Yankees are still missing the cornerstone on their roster. It remains to be seen whether that player emerges internally from the Yankees’ farm system or via free agency, when this winter would be the ideal time to spend big.

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