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Bowden: Ranking the 5 teams most likely to land Aaron Judge in free agency

Thursday is the first day free agents can sign with teams, which means Aaron Judge’s winter is upon us.

Several major market teams plan to sue Judge, but none of us know what he thinks. Judge and his agents kept everything close to the vest, apart from Judge’s public comments that he would like to remain a Yankee. I think it’s likely if the Yankees are willing to make him the biggest offer, but it’s not a slam dunk because when a player of his caliber hits free agency, records are usually broken.

Before the season, Judge wisely turned down a seven-year, $213.5 million extension from the Yankees. Now I predict he will receive an eight-year contract worth around $330 million. (See my contract predictions for all the top free agents here.)

Judge, 30, is coming off arguably the best single-season offensive performance in baseball history. He cut .311/.425/.686 with an American League record 62 homers, 133 runs scored and 131 RBI. He was worth 10.6 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, and had 211 OPS+. He had six assists in the field and no errors. He led the league in average exit velocity, barrel percentage, and hard hit rate. Just amazing.

So, what uniform will this prodigious talent wear next season? A team can always surprise, but there are only five that I could see making a legitimate run at signing Judge in free agency. Here’s my ranking of the teams most likely to land him.

All rise! Let the Aaron Judge coin toss begin. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

1. Yankees

Owner: Hal Steinbrenner
GM: Brian Cashman

The Yankees have made Judge their top priority this offseason and they intend to push hard to re-sign him. Judge is the face of the franchise and represents the Yankees organization and New York City as well as any player since the retirement of captain Derek Jeter. The Yankees need Judge more than any other free agent they’ve had during Cashman’s 24-year tenure as general manager.

No one knows how far Steinbrenner will go to keep the judge, or if he’ll even match the best offer the slugger receives in free agency. But the Yankees have the most to lose if they don’t sign Judge. You cannot replace it. There simply isn’t an offensive player of that magnitude available through free agency or trade, and any kind of pivot will result in far less talent.

2. Dodgers

Owner: Mark Walters
President: Andrew Friedman GM: Brandon Gomes

The Dodgers potentially have a lot of money off the books, including free agent Trea Turner’s salaries; Cody Bellinger, who is eligible for arbitration and made $17 million this year, but they could trade him or not offer him; Justin Turner, who has a $16 million club option with a $2 million buyout; and Craig Kimbrel, who earned $16 million this year. That’s more than enough to take down Judge. Imagine the Dodgers with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Judge, three of the most talented players in the game, topping the list.

The Dodgers could play Betts on center field if they move on from Bellinger and land Judge. Or Betts could play second base, if he moves Gavin Lux to shortstop and doesn’t re-sign Trea Turner.

Historically, the Dodgers have preferred shorter-term contracts, and perhaps they could offer Judge a four-year deal worth around $200 million, a strategy they tried with Bryce Harper when he reached free agency and later signed with the Phillies. However, Judge is the type of player they would be willing to go to eight years for, as they were with Betts, who signed a $365 million 12-year extension in 2020. They are a real threat to offer a deal that could persuade Judge to leave the Yankees.

3. Dish

Owner: Steve Cohen
GM: Billy Epler

If Cohen really wants Judge, he has the resources to blow the competition out of the water. He could offer a contract of around $400 million, a range I doubt the Yankees would match. Judge would fit perfectly into right field for the Mets, who could move Starling Marte to center field, his preferred position. Judge, Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso would form a devastating trio amid the Mets roster.

4. Giants

Owner: Charles B. Johnson
President: Farhan Zaidi GM: Pete the whore

Zaidi made it clear that the Giants plan to be aggressive in free agency and pursue some of the biggest names. He would like to find a way to land judge, as former owner Peter Magowan signed Barry Bonds at the 1992 winter meetings.

Judge grew up in Northern California and attended California State University in Fresno. Players often want to go “home” when they reach free agency, and the Giants are hoping geography will be one of the reasons San Francisco draws it. However, they retool and don’t have a clear path to the playoffs for at least a few years, especially with the Dodgers and Padres in the same division. This might discourage Judge.

5. White Sox

Owner: Jerry Reinsdorf
President: Ken Williams GM: Rick Hahn

I will never count on Reinsdorf to cause a stir with any of his teams at any time. The White Sox are expected to let first baseman Jose Abreu walk in free agency and plan to move Andrew Vaughn to first base and open up the designated hitter position at least some of the time for Eloy Jiménez. They have top prospect Oscar Colas, who is looming as their future right fielder, on the way, but he could move to left field to make room for Judge. The White Sox will need to improve their defense and replace Abreu’s offense, and they could use Judge’s leadership by example and work ethic in their clubhouse.

In 1996, 26 years ago, Reinsdorf had perhaps his greatest success as a free agent when he signed Albert Belle to what was then the richest contract in baseball history, a five-year, $55 million contract. Can history repeat itself and the White Sox shock the baseball world by signing Judge? I doubt it, and there are hints that they won’t be among the top free agents. But I would never bet against the owner of the White Sox if he decides he wants to go that route.

Here are the reasons why I don’t see any of the other 25 teams having a legitimate chance to land judge.

Atlanta: The Braves have Ronald Acuña Jr. in right field. If they’re going to spend on a star, they’re more likely to try to sign a high-end starter like Jacob deGrom.

Arizona: The Diamondbacks are happy with their trio of young outfielders and are sticking to their long-term plan.

Baltimore: The Orioles are ready to start playing free agency this offseason, but not to the extent required by the judge.

Boston: If the Red Sox aren’t going to pay Betts and are having trouble retaining Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts, what makes you think they’re going to come to Judge?

Chicago (NL): The Cubs have the resources to join the field in contention for the judge, but without a clear path to the playoffs, I doubt he would pick them. Also, I doubt they would be the highest bidder if they made a game for him.

Cincinnati: They don’t have the resources to compete at that level of free will.

Cleveland: The Guardians’ big contract extension was with the face of their franchise, José Ramírez, so count them in on Judge. They will mostly advance with their young roster and strong farming system instead.

Colorado: If they can’t afford to keep Nolan Arenado or Trevor Story, they won’t pay Judge. (Yes, I know they signed Kris Bryant to a $182 million deal.)

Detroit: The Tigers aren’t competitive enough to be in the discussion.

Houston: The Astros have a judgeless World Series championship team, and their right fielder, Kyle Tucker, won the AL Gold Glove Award, hit 30 home runs and stole 25 bases.

Kansas City: They don’t have the resources to meaningfully engage Judge.

Los Angeles (AL): The Angels are for sale and while it would be fun to see Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Judge on the same team, the Angels need to put all of their resources into pitching, which has long been their Achilles heel. Moreover, would they hesitate on another nine-figure contract after having failed so many times (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Anthony Rendon)?

Miami: They don’t have the resources.

Milwaukee: They don’t have the resources.

Minnesota: The Twins shocked us last offseason by signing Carlos Correa, but it was a short-term deal. The small-market Twins shouldn’t put a $300 million commitment on the books and take the risk, as they should have learned from their failed contract with Joe Mauer.

Oakland: They don’t have the resources.

Pittsburgh: They don’t have the resources.

Philadelphia Cream: If the Phillies get big in free agency, it will be for shortstop, which would allow them to move Bryson Stott to second base. They signed corner fielders Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber out of free agency last offseason, and once Bryce Harper’s right (throwing) elbow heals, he’ll be in right field most of the time.

San Diego: The Padres are going to do their best to retain Juan Soto beyond 2024 when his contract expires, and with Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. under contract, they don’t have enough money left for a judge’s lawsuit.

Seattle: I thought long and hard about the Mariners, but I’m told they’re more likely to add an infielder than an outfielder, so I left them out. That said, I never count Jerry Dipoto, their president of baseball operations, on any trade. I just don’t see a way to make this work for the judge or the team.

Saint Louis: The Cardinals are not expected to participate in the judges’ draw. They will focus on landing a catcher and more throws.

Tampa Bay: They don’t have the resources.

Texas: They spent their free agent money in the star player position last offseason with Marcus Semien and Corey Seager. New manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Chris Young would instead emphasize pitching and defense when committing future payrolls.

Toronto: The Blue Jays need to prioritize left-handed hits (to better balance their roster) and relievers who can miss bats, over right-handed hits.

Washington: The Nationals are in rebuilding mode and selling the team, which means Nats fans can “ALL SIT!” when it comes to judging.

(Top photo: LM Otero/Associated Press)

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