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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: February 1, 2023 2:45 pm PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

Now make him Captain.

Then give Aaron Judge a seat at the table, essentially, Yankees Captain, special assistant to the GM.

No player in baseball has the power Aaron Judge has on the field and now off – with the nine-year, $360 million power broker position the Yankees gave him Wednesday to keep him away from the San Francisco Giants and San Diego Padres.

In every way, Aaron Judge is the true leader of the team, locked in for nine more years, five more years than Brian Cashman, now a Yankee for life.

And those are not just numbers. Judge took on Yankees management and won the battle by hitting an AL record 62 home runs in 2022, making their preseason, late in the game offer to him irrelevant as he ran away with AL MVP honors.

Essentially, Judge crushed home runs, Cashman, and Hal Steinbrenner.

You can be sure any Yankee major transactions made in the future will be greenlighted by Judge – and that is a good thing because the Yankees need to get back to making baseball decisions for baseball reasons not just reside in the analytics world Cashman lives in as Yankees GM with Hal’s blessing.

You can see it already with the return of Anthony Rizzo, who was Judge’s wingman last year; and giving the young athletic middle infielders Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe “a shot.’’ The Yankees needed to re-sign Rizzo and they did, and they got the nine year, $360 million deal done with Judge at the winter meetings in San Diego.

To put it in Vegas terms, Judge let it ride and came away with an additional $146.5 million of Hal Steinbrenner’s money.

The Giants could not get out of their own way in bringing Judge home and that speaks of Giants Nerd management … and the power of the pinstripes. The Padres, who change game plans quite regularly, made a last-second effort but should have gotten involved in the Judge battle much earlier to make the impact that A.J. Preller wanted to make.

This looks good for the Padres, though, with their fans; “see we are trying’’ – but it would have made more sense for the Padres to identify Judge as the player they wanted the day free agency began and go hard on selling Judge the Padres way … and by the way, just a gentle reminder for the Padres, the year the Yankees drafted Judge with the 32nd pick of the first round in 2013, the Padres owned the 13th pick and selected a different right-fielder, Hunter Renfroe. That was back when Josh Byrnes was GM.

Preller did not come along until the following season, so the Padres are heading into Year 10 of Preller, and landing 99 would have been a coup; but now it’s all just a footnote. In 2013 the Giants picked 25th and went with Christian Arroyo as their pick.

The Yankees are Aaron Judge in every way.

For the next nine years the Yankees are Judge’s Team and Brian Cashman must now do the bidding to make Judge and the Yankees successful to find a way to get back to the World Series, which hasn’t happened since four years before the Yankees selected Judge in the draft.

Cashman has had 13 years to get it right and get the Yankees back to the World Series.

Judge did all he could do last year to try to get the Yankees to the Promised Land, hitting those 62 home runs and in all these other amazing categories he led baseball as well: 133 runs, 131 RBIs, 111 walks, .425 on base percentage, .686 slugging, 1.111 and 391 total bases.

Plus a .311 average.

Add up all those numbers and you get No. 99. Judge’s number and the number of wins the Yankees managed to win to take the AL East – but there has to be more than Aaron Judge for the Yankees to complete the job.

Aaron Judge #99 and Anthony Rizzo #48 of the New York Yankees react after the first out was recorded against the Houston Astros during the second inning in game three of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 22, 2022. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Judge won the war after Cashman let out the particulars of the $213.5 million deal Judge turned down right before the season in an effort to shape the media and fan narrative against Judge.

Judge made it clear to TIME too that he was not happy with the tactic; something I had said when it happened. It was a Bush League move and Judge took the slings and arrows and turned it into one of the most incredible years in baseball history and a $360 million payday, a slight increase from the $213.5 million Cashman said was on the table for Judge at the start of the season.

To put it in Vegas terms, Judge let it ride and came away with an additional $146.5 million of Hal Steinbrenner’s money.

That’s winning the war – and just think if Cashman and the Yankees had had the vision to sign Judge to a long-term deal like three years ago when they refused to even talk turkey with Judge.

Even Hal, who has made Cashman King for Life, has to realize the folly in all that, as Judge won the war. That’s why I say Judge now has ultimate power.

And not just in the ballpark for No. 99. He is the Yankees for the next nine years and his opinion will matter on every major move the Yankees make. His expertise will be utilized. And if he is not happy with something he will be expected to step up and say something.

Judge is in control of his Yankee destiny now: not only financial control with the $360 million deal, essentially becoming partners with Hal, but in control of the destiny of the franchise.

It’s a beautiful thing.

I would venture to say that Aaron Judge has more power than any player in the history of baseball. He beat Babe Ruth’s single-season home run total and now he has more power than Ruth ever had in pinstripes because of that nine-year, $360 million deal. Not too long after Roger Maris hit his 61 home runs in 1961 to break Ruth’s mark he became a St. Louis Cardinal.

Judge beat Maris’ mark and now holds all the cards for the Yankees.

Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees fields a double hit by Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros during the fifth inning in game three of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 22, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

When Judge made his fascinating comments to TIME, saying, “I was a little upset that the numbers came out. I understand it is a negotiation tactic. Put pressure on me. Turn the fans against me, turn the media on me. That part I didn’t like,’’ he was setting down new rules for Cashman.

And by explaining it in just this fashion and then signing back with the Yankees the message is clear. “I know what you did, I know why you did it. I did not like it. And I produced.’’

Time for Cashman to produce.

Call it a preemptive strike. It’s a way to get a leg up on Cashman. Judge essentially said I am coming back because it’s the Yankees and $360 million and I want this to be my legacy; it’s not because of Brian Cashman.

Supposedly the Padres offered more, which is so Padres, getting into the game too late and there also was a point on Tuesday during which “experts’’ said Judge was on his way to San Francisco and the Giants.

So much for “experts.’’

In the end, Judge followed his heart and understood the value of his Yankee legacy, understood and enjoyed where he played and lived. Don’t forget he lives in Tampa in the offseason and ballplayers are creatures of habit; and once they become ensconced within a team, there is value in that as opposed to starting over somewhere else, perhaps in Scottsdale or Peoria. Players love familiarity.

It’s a big part of who they are as players and people.

Since 2013 the Yankees minor league and major league complexes in Tampa have been home to Aaron Judge.

With basically all things being equal, it’s easier to stay home where the Yankees can handle the AL East. Aaron Judge is comfortable here. He knows the lay of the land and I thought it was telling when he showed up at the Bucs game on Monday Night in Tampa, right across from the Yankees minor league complex, wearing Bucs colors, kind of a shout-out to Tampa. He didn’t show up at a 49ers game – and at that point it was a small but significant indication that Tampa is his off-season home.

Aaron Judge talks with Tom Brady #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prior to the game against the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on December 05, 2022 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

If the 81-81 Giants were a better team, I think the Yankees would have lost this race, but the Giants are pretty much a team without an identity, a team without stars.

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once said: ‘Who are those guys?’’

But they said it in an admiring fashion.

My question is not filled with admiration. Who exactly are the Giants and what do they stand for? At this point, mediocrity.

They had a terrible year, finishing 30 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. Clearly, Judge felt more comfortable with the Yankees and Yankee Stadium than taking a leap of faith on the Giants and spacious AT&T Park or whatever they are calling it these days.

In the end the money got to where Judge was in charge. Now the pressure is on him and that will be a motivating factor moving forward. Bring it on.

There is room to grow, especially in the postseason.

Judge batted .311 last season in his AL MVP season. His lifetime batting average in the postseason is 100 points lower at .211. The Astros owned Judge in the four-game sweep in the ALCS. Judge hit .063 against them with an .063 slugging percentage.

For this contract to pay off for the Yankees, who have been stuck on 27 World Championships, Judge is going to have to find a way to get the big hits in the ALCS.

Players have always told me it’s the League Championship Series where pressure is the greatest. That goes for when I covered the NFL and the NBA as well. It was the conference championships where the pressure was relentless. Come through in that situation and everything else like the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, and the World Series is gravy.

You can exhale once you make it through the championship round.

Aaron Judge has to find a way to exhale through the ALCS.

Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton of the New York Yankees wait for Sam Judge to cross the finish line during the TCS 2022 New York City Marathon on November 06, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Judge has appeared in three ALCS over his career, all against different versions of the Astros. In his first, in 2017, he batted .250 with three home runs and seven RBI over those seven games. In 2019 he hit .240 with one one home run and two RBI over six games. The Astros hold a 12-5 advantage in those three series. They completely shut down Judge this last time out. That’s a problem for the Yankees. Judge and the Yankees have to find a way to be much better as a team. They cannot rely on their regular season formula to beat the Astros: the power game, power hitting, and power pitching.

There must be more. There must be more actual baseball, more contact, and moving runners along and better defense and pinpoint pitching.

With this humongous new contract in hand for Judge, Cashman is going to have to include him in the problem solving.

Again, with Judge’s comments to TIME that was a clear message to Cashman: enough with the gamesmanship.

This is no longer, “I’m just a player.’’

Essentially, Aaron Judge is the Yankees for the next nine years and must be considered more than just a player, but a baseball opinion that matters.

Cashman never really offered that type of power to Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez but he will have to offer it to Judge. Cashman must change because right now Aaron Judge has five more years under contract with the Yankees than Cashman has with the team. Yes, Cashman has been GM for Life with Hal Steinbrenner in charge but this is a different situation today with Judge owning that nine-year, $360 million deal; that’s $147 million more than at the start of last season.

That gets you a seat at the table.

Brian Cashman is Yankees GM, but Aaron Judge is Mr. Yankee for 360 million reasons. That’s the Power of 99.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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