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Why it’s not too early for the Yankees to consider locking up Aaron Judge

Yankees’ rookie Aaron Judge celebrates after winning the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Marlins Park on July 10, 2017 in Miami, Florida (Photo: Mark Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Hours before Yankees’ rookie Aaron Judge garnered acclamation and polished hardware for his jaw-dropping performance in the Home Run Derby at Marlins Park in Miami on Monday night, the 25-year-old was given some sour looks from a few of his colleagues.

While Judge was standing underneath the Marlins’ portable backstop for some warmup swings, Seattle Mariners’ second baseman Robinson Cano was among All-Stars chattering and shagging fly balls in the outfield. But once Judge stepped inside the green artifical batter’s box mounted atop the dirt, Cano and the rest of the players quickly shifted their focus.

Then, all of the sudden, there was a sweet crack of the bat — perhaps a sound some players have dreamed to compose — and seconds later, a 108 doubled stiched baseball unfathomably struck the stadium’s retractable roof high above. 

As the ball fell to its death, Cano, with a glove in hand, placed his arms on his hips and grimaced — an appropriate reaction for what was just witnessed. 

“What [Judge] did was amazing,” Cano told reporters after the contest. “I’ve never seen anything like that. To go opposite field that many times … he made this ballpark look like nothing.”

And that’s coming from a slugger who’s won the Derby before. It was six years ago today when Cano took home the prize at Chase Field in Arizona, after hitting 32 total home runs in three rounds. As for Judge, who became the fourth Yankee to win the event, he finished with 47 home runs in the newly styled format, and punished four baseballs that traveled a laudable 500-plus feet. The spray charts tracking Judge’s homers with an arching colored line looked like a volcano, as he used every part of the field to demonstrate his brute strength.

“It was a blast,” Judge told ESPN. “I enjoyed every minute of it — watching the other guys swing, coming here early and talking to the media. Everything about today was fantastic.”

(Photo By: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

At the rate Judge has been playing, it doesn’t seem like his future trophy cases will collect much dust. With a major league-leading 30 home runs at the All-Star break, he’s a prime candidate for American League MVP, and as for Rookie of the Year honors, Judge’s name should already be engraved on the award. What he’s accomplished in his young career is rather unorthodox — maybe even a little taboo — as he’s shown little signs of weakness or inferiority in a game that involves failure and demands adjustments. It’s as if Judge has been in the league for years and knows everyone’s tricks.

But, let’s stick a pin into the constant romanticism, and focus on reality. Right now, Judge is a rookie, and that’s delightful news for the Yankees’ front office. Time will tell if Judge can sustain his torrid hitting pace, but it’s also time that New York has plenty of. This season, Judge is making a base salary of $554,500, and while his price will continue to increase in the coming years, Judge isn’t eligible for free agency until 2023, which in the grand scheme of things, makes him one of baseball’s most valuable assets.

Without a doubt, Judge has become the poster child for the Yankees’ new class of youngsters, hoping to lead the franchise on a path to championships. However, this isn’t New York’s first rodeo with talented prospects, as just over a decade ago, the Baby Bombers’ poster child was in fact Cano, who flourished as a 22-year-old rookie in 2005. In his nine seasons with the Yankees, Cano’s textbook swing and flashy glove brought optimism to the fanbase. He was going to be next in line to lead the club to bigger and better games. Or so most people thought.

During the 2013 offseason, New York was forced to make a choice. Their 30-year-old second baseman was bound for free agency, with a request for a lot of money. As the story goes, the Yankees’ offer to keep Cano wasn’t good enough, and their glimmering star chose a massive long-term contract with Seattle instead. At the time, there was a lot of frustration and finger pointing– even though the Yankees believed their offer was fair. The missed opportunity to retain Cano then led New York to make some regrettable signings, and now, four years later, Cano appears to be well on his way to Cooperstown, while the Yankees hope to be under the luxury tax threshold by 2019.

If New York reaches their goal, temptation will soon come, as they’re expected to be big buyers when baseball’s historic free agent class is revealed. Superstars like Nationals’ Bryce Harper and Orioles’ Manny Machado are expected to be on that list, and it’s no secret that the Yankees are an interested party. But even if those two names want record-breaking deals, New York will have to spend wisely for a number reasons, thanks to Judge. At some point (even if it feels like he’s worthy of a deal now), the Yankees will have to discuss Judge’s long-term future with the club, and considering how this season’s gone, the image of Judge walking away from the Bronx in six years is inconceivable.

When the calendar turns to 2023, Judge will be 30 — just like Cano in 2013, and even though there’s no way to tell what the future will bring to either Judge or the team, the Yankees can’t afford to wait that long to make him a max offer. They can’t afford to make the same mistake they made with Cano. The smartest solution would be to extend his contract in the next year or two, and then by the time Judge is 32 or 33 (assuming he’s on the back end of his prime), he’ll be free agent bound, and the Yankees will be able to determine whether he’s meant to don pinstripes for his entire career.

The conversation seems  a tad premature, and in all honesty, it is. But if this is Judge’s true makeup, if he’s a once in a generation talent, the Yankees’ inclination to lock him up couldn’t come sooner.

If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.

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