Does the Aaron Judge contract help other AL East teams like the Blue Jays?

ALCS - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four
ALCS - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four / Al Bello/GettyImages

Reigning AL MVP Aaron Judge put an exclamation point on MLB’s 2022 Winter Meetings with the largest free agent contract in MLB history, a nine-year, $360 million deal to remain with the New York Yankees through his age 39 season in 2031. As per MLBTR, “The $40 million average annual value on the contract establishes a new record among position players and trails only the matching $43.333 million AAVs of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — both of whom are on shorter-term deals — for the largest in MLB history.

But what does this mean for the other AL East teams, including the Toronto Blue Jays?

Certainly, Judge is an MVP bat who just missed out on a Triple Crown this season, slashing .311/.425/.686/1.111 with an OPS+ of 211 and bWAR of 10.6, to go with 62 home runs, 133 runs scored and 131 RBIs. That’s the most home runs ever by an AL player, breaking Roger Maris’ record of 61 in 1961.

Certainly the competitive landscape in the American League is shifting this offseason. Gone are All-Star and Silver Slugger SS Xander Bogaerts from the Red Sox and Houston ace Justin Verlander. The Texas Rangers welcome two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom as their new ace, and also added left-handed starter Andrew Heaney on a two year deal that could be worth up to $37 million with incentives.

In the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays have been active, adding free agent starter Zach Eflin on a three-year, $40 million deal. Baltimore so far has added starter Kyle Gibson on a one-year, $10 million deal. And Boston is reworking their bullpen and outfield, adding closer Kenley Jansen on a two-year, $32 million deal, right-hander Chris Martin for two years, $17.5 million, and lefty Joely Rodriguez for one year at $2 million.

The Red Sox’s reported five-year, $90 million contract with star Japanese corner outfielder Masataka Yoshida might help take away some of the sting from losing Bogaerts given the left-handed Yoshida has been on base in over 40% of his plate appearances in each of the last six seasons. MLBTR notes the 29-year-old “has shown exceptional bat-to-ball skills in Japan, walking more often than he’s struck out for four straight years. This past season’s marks were especially impressive, as he had nearly twice as many free passes as punchouts. Yoshida walked at a massive 15.7% clip while fanning in only 8.1% of his plate appearances.”

But the Yankees have made the biggest splash in thre AL East so far this offseason, doling out $411.5 million so far to resign Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo and Tommy Kahnle. However, therein lies a key consideration: have the Yankees improved their ballclub with these moves?

Arguably in retaining Judge and Rizzo, they are just maintaining their status quo roster from the ACLS team that lost 4-0 to the Astros in October. Given that Judge will be 31 next year, and Rizzo is already 33, does the well-documented risk of position players declining physically in their 30's pose a risk to further upside from those players? Can Judge repeat his monstrous 2022 season to improve the Yankees Wold Series odds in 2023 and beyond? And what will that $40 million AAV contract look like if the 6’7”, 282lb Judge is injured or starts breaking down physically in the age 35-39 years of the deal?

Jays fans will no doubt love to see Judge play for many years to come given the excitement he brings to the game. In fact, he tied the Maris home run record in a game at Rogers Centre in Toronto on September 28th off Tim Mayza. But as Keith Law of The Athletic notes, they might also be happy “if the history of players Judge’s size and the way all position players decline as they get into their mid- to late-30s will make the back-end of this contract ugly for the team.’

Could Judge’s monster contract be strangely good news for the other teams in the AL East?

It’s hard to argue that the Yankees are much improved from the ALCS team that lost 4-0 to Houston after spending over $400 million so far this offseason on free agents. Starter Jameson Taillon signed with the Cubs. Reliever Miguel Castro signed with Arizona. What if Judge, Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton were all to regress in 2023 and beyond?

Keith Law again nails it on Judge: “the history of players like him says he’s very unlikely to produce like a star and stay healthy even halfway through this contract. The deal covers Judge’s age 31 through 39 seasons. Not many hitters 6-foot-7 or taller have even reached the majors, and of those that have, none has been productive past age 34. Only two players listed at 6-7 have even had 400 plate appearances in a season after age 30, Frank Howard four times and Richie Sexson twice. Even if we lower the bar slightly to 6-6, only three players have reached the 400 plate appearances threshold: Dave Winfield (10 times!), Dave Kingman (twice), and Giancarlo Stanton (once, in 2021).”

So enjoy watching Aaron Judge play against the Blue Jays while you root against him. He certainly helps make the AL East one of the toughest divisions in Major League Baseball. But at the same time, Jays fans might take solace in the fact that unicorns aren’t real. As Keith Law concludes, “If you’re telling me Aaron Judge is a unicorn, a player who’ll age well and stay healthy into his mid-30s despite his height and size, you might be right, but we haven’t seen any unicorns yet.” Which could certainly handcuff the Yankees on payroll and their active 26-man roster building for many years to come.