SAN DIEGO — Aaron Judge has spent most of the season at the center of the baseball world, chasing Roger Maris’ American League home run record.
If anything could compete with that, we’re about to see it in Winter Meetings, which began Sunday night, with Judge’s free agency setting the tone for the rest of the offseason.
When Judge won his first AL MVP award last month, attention had already turned to his free agency plans.
“I look forward to moving the free agent process forward,” Judge said at the time. « A lot of things don’t start until winter meetings in December. »
Meetings began at the Manchester Grand Hyatt on Sunday, with the focus on Judge, whose free agency was already the biggest story in baseball even before Jacob deGrom chose to lock the Mets in favor of Rangers and the five-year contract at $185. million contract they gave him.
The timing and amount of deGrom’s signing surprised some, but the destination — and the fact that he was willing to leave the Mets — was not.
It would be considered a much bigger shock if Judge ended up leaving the Bronx, even for the Giants not far from his hometown of Linden, Calif.
The consensus heading into those meetings was that the Yankees — who « would have over $300 million on the table » to judge, according to the Post’s Jon Heyman — remain the favorites to retain him.
But Judge has met with the Giants before and has been open to offers from other teams since turning down the Yankees’ seven-year, $213.5 million deal on opening day.
Since taking that bet, Judge has set the American League record with 62 home runs and won the MVP award.
Until Judge’s destination is determined, much of the Yankees’ other offseason plans are on hold.
They signed Anthony Rizzo to a new contract last month after the first baseman attracted strong interest from other teams, but until the Yankees know Judge’s future, it’s unlikely that they make too many other important moves.
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has openly said he wants to keep Judge in the Bronx and it is believed the Yankees would go to nine, but if the Giants go to 10, Judge is expected to end up in San Francisco.
« We know where we are, » Steinbrenner said of the team’s payroll last month in relation to its lawsuit from the judge. « I can tell you that won’t stop us. »
Steinbrenner added that he told the judge he wanted to keep it.
There remains confidence within the organization that the Yankees will keep Judge and that he doesn’t want to leave, which Steinbrenner hinted at earlier in the offseason.
« I believe he wants to be a Yankee, » Steinbrenner said. « I think we have a good thing to do here. »
But there’s the reality that as long as Judge is a free agent, he may end up rejecting the Yankees.
Judge stood inside the Yankee Stadium clubhouse and referred to the Yankees in the past tense after their season-ending loss to the Astros in the Bronx.
« To have the chance to wear stripes and play on the field at Yankee Stadium is an incredible honor that I certainly did not take for granted at any time, » Judge said after the Yankees were swept from the ALCS by the Astros. “It was a special moment. I’m just kicking myself for not bringing this championship home.
We may soon find out if Judge has another shot at it with the Yankees.