On Friday, the New York Yankees took their undisputed best player to arbitration. That’s right. The big bad behemoth of a franchise is battling one of the faces of baseball over a few million dollars. The Los Angeles Dodgers would never.
LA rescued Mookie Betts from Boston, where the Red Sox clearly weren’t willing to go the extra mile to cough up a few bucks and keep one of the best players in the sport in town for the remainder of his career.
If things go south between Judge and the Yankees, might the Dodgers swoop in once the slugger becomes a free agent in November and … put him in center field?
But we thought Judge was likely going to re-sign with the Yankees regardless? And isn’t he a right fielder? And isn’t he going to cost close to $300 million? OK, let us explain.
Judge gave the Yankees an Opening Day deadline for his contract extension. They offered him a seven-year, $213.5 million deal and tried to sneak in their price for his arbitration salary in 2022 ($17 million vs Judge’s requested $21 million). Judge rejected. Already off to a bad start.
Then, instead of using the next 2.5 months to come to an agreement on his 2022 salary, they’re going to arbitration to let an independent panel decide the number. Sure, this is the “business” side of baseball, but it’s probably best to operate in good faith with one of the most recognized names in the game. Will it hurt the Yankees? We don’t know, but it can’t be ruled out.
Can the Dodgers realistically steal Aaron Judge from the Yankees?
Now, for his defense. Judge, for his career, is primarily a right fielder. There’s no disputing that. However, in his contract year, he’s helped the Yankees be more flexible with their lineup thanks to the inadequate play of Joey Gallo and Aaron Hicks, as well as the need for Giancarlo Stanton to get reps on defense.
Out of 77 games, Judge has made 33 starts in center field, 35 in right, and 9 at DH. He has a 1.000 fielding percentage in center, despite the fact he possesses a -0.3 dWAR overall and -1 Defensive Runs Saved in center. If you watch him on a nightly basis, you wouldn’t even believe those metrics. He’s covered a ton of ground and has made tremendous plays to bail out the Yankees’ pitching staff.
And lastly, the money. Can the Dodgers afford another mega contract? Will Judge actually be asking for the rumored $360 million deal that fans heard about after he turned down the Yankees’ offer?
Let’s be real. Judge is a tremendous, once-in-a-generation player. But he’s going to be 31 years old next season. He’s not going to receive a nine- or 10-year contract. He will, however, probably be closer to a $34-$38 AAV deal, whether it’s between 5-7 years. So can the Dodgers afford that?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is … they’d need the Trevor Bauer situation to resolve itself once and for all; Cody Bellinger would have to be non-tendered; Justin Turner and Max Muncy would have to see their team options get rejected; and Trea Turner would likely have to leave via free agency.
The Dodgers have $87.7 million guaranteed dollars on their 2023 payroll. That number balloons to $197.6 million if they exercise all contract options and pay all their arbitration-eligible players. But if they’re just paying their arb-eligible guys, that number is still only $120. Take Cody Bellinger’s ~$20 million out of there, and you’re looking at only $100 million, meaning the Dodgers would have upwards of $185 million to spend in the offseason on Judge and a ton of pitching.
They can save big money if Gavin Lux can handle the shortstop position should Turner leave; Chris Taylor returns to second base and they find a new left fielder; and top prospect Miguel Vargas takes over for JT at third (or…in left?!).
Then, the Dodgers, assuming they sign Judge, would have to focus on adding a left fielder and essentially rebuilding most of the pitching staff (Clayton Kershaw, Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney, Daniel Hudson and others will be free agents as well).
Nobody said this would be easy, but the path to do it exists.