Why the Braves could start Aaron Judge’s bidding war in New York and New York
Over the next three months, as the baseball season winds toward October, there are 14 games worth circling on the days the No. 1-ranked New York Mets meet world champion Atlanta Braves. to contend for supremacy in the National League East. After a torrid start to the season, the Mets gave up enough ground to give the Braves a shot at reclaiming the division crown for the fifth straight year. The subsequent scramble will decide which club is most likely to get a first-round bye and which club flips coins in the wild-card round.
It may also help determine how richer Yankees star Aaron Judge will become this winter.
Sounds like a stretch? Listen to me.
In the months following the judge rejected a seven-year, $213.5 million extension with the Yankees, rival officials speculated on his location and salary for 2023 and beyond. The industry expects him to find a new contract that tops Hal Steinbrenner’s pre-season offer. To what extent, according to some leaders, depends on the irrationality of the owning class of sport. The options for its locale will be spread across the country.
The Cubs need a new franchise mainstay. The Giants could use a judge-sized boost to stay relevant in the National League West. The Dodgers keep signing stars. And the Yankees remain baseball’s wealthiest franchise, with the added bonus of not disappointing a fanbase that has come to adore Judge.
But the most intriguing destination, at least for those who tend to See baseball from 9th Avenue, is just under 10 miles east of Yankee Stadium, a relatively straightforward jaunt from the #4 train to the #7 line. There’s been a lot of talk this year about whether Steve Cohen’s Mets supplanted the Yankees as New York’s top baseball player. A bidding war for the judge could fan the flames to a degree the city has never seen before.
The Yankees tend to offload the players they want to offload. Steinbrenner set records by signing free agents like Gerrit Cole and Aroldis Chapman. He forked over $90 million to avoid losing DJ LeMahieu. He opened his arms to Giancarlo Stanton’s massive contract. Steinbrenner’s franchise has deep pockets. But he never had to dig them to outbid Cohen – the man who laughed when other owners named a luxury tax threshold after him.
That’s why the Atlanta Braves could hold the key to Judge’s $300 million dreams. Not because the Braves will pay that amount. But if Atlanta overtakes the Mets in the National League East and relegates Cohen to the wild card round, it’s hard to imagine the hedge fund billionaire sitting quietly. And no individual player better suits the needs of his roster, especially a power threat to team up with first baseman Pete Alonso, than Judge.
Aaron Judge is so clutch.
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) July 10, 2022
Under Cohen, the Mets have an annual contention mandate. Max Scherzer can retire after 2023. Alonso can become a free agent after 2024. General manager Billy Eppler has used his scouting acumen and Cohen’s money to manufacture a playoff-bound club in 2022. The financial investment of Cohen will only go up, especially if the Braves capture the division.
Where could the money go?
The obvious answer is to a player already on the roster. Jacob deGrom intends to retire after this season. The Mets need to figure out how much they’re willing to pay him for his rehab; he hasn’t pitched for the team since July 7, 2021. And deGrom must determine whether he intends to stay in New York. Despite his year away from a big league mound, deGrom will attract strong interest from teams in hopes he can stay healthy.
A major investment in deGrom, of course, wouldn’t stop Cohen from spending elsewhere. No more than a chase of San Diego starter Joe Musgrove or San Francisco starter Carlos Rodón or Boston starter Nathan Eovaldi or any of the other guns out there. Cohen lavished $254.5 million on four free agents last winter. It can perform multiple tasks. And its $130 million commitment to Scherzer showed its willingness to shop at the top of the market.
The top players expected in the next round of free agency — Carlos Correa, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts — are all shortstops. The Mets have nine more years with Francisco Lindor. The team could pay enough to convince one of them to play third base, or they could try to lure Nolan Arenado, if he pulls out of his deal in St. Louis. That would still lock out a pair of the organization’s top on-court prospects, Brett Baty and Mark Vientos. The presence of farm system gem Francisco Álvarez, combined with the $24.3 million still owed to James McCann, makes a full-fledged receiver Willson Contreras prosecution unlikely.
Cohen might prefer a potential star at third base or a catcher over an unproven rookie. But he often cited the Dodgers as a model for his franchise. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers became a juggernaut late in the last decade on the backs of local stars. Which could dampen the Mets’ interest in paying the prospect cost to nab someone like Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds.
It’s possible the Mets will avoid long engagements. Departing staff will need work. In addition to deGrom, Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker and Carlos Carrasco can leave this winter. The Mets could stay reasonable, patch up the rotation and hope for offensive improvements to come from a fleet of prospects.
It will be a lot easier to sell if the 2022 group wins the division.
Because if not?
With Brandon Nimmo entering free agency, the Mets will have a vacancy in the outfield. The judge can play all three outfield positions; he can split his time in center field with Starling Marte. There would be few worries about its adaptation to the new market. He’s ruled the spotlight in the Bronx with aplomb since his debut in 2016.
Of course, all the usual caveats apply. Judge turns 31 next April. He missed a lot of time from 2018 to 2020. His body could collapse. His bat might slow down. Mets front office executives know this. Their counterparts in the Bronx knew it too. They still offered him a sizable nine-digit extension.
The judge thinks he’s worth more, on the same level as Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. He built an MVP case during his platform season, catalyzing the Yankees to their best trajectory since 1998. He’s banking on an owner ignoring the aging curve and rewarding him for his confidence. This owner could well be Steinbrenner.
But it could also be Cohen. Opportunity looms with every inch of ground the Braves gain. If Atlanta wins the East, the judge should send a thank you card. He can afford it.
(Top photo: Brad Penner – USA TODAY Sports)