Before Aaron Judge won the AL MVP Award, before he hit 62 historic home runs, before he donned the eye-catching No. 99 in the New York Yankees pinstripes and won Rookie of the Year, he was a child. A child of Linden, California, a small town — population 2,043 — about 100 miles east of San Francisco, just past Stockton, that is now known mostly for raising Aaron Judge.
His parents and his wife’s parents still live there, and he still uses his alma mater’s gym to work out while visiting family in the offseason. You already know this, though, if you’ve followed anything about Judge’s high-stakes free agency. After declining a seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer from the Yankees prior to 2022, Judge decisively won the bet on himself with the best power season baseball has seen since Barry Bonds.
And as it happens, Bonds’ former team, the San Francisco Giants, has positioned itself to pounce. Even while whipping up that surprise 107-win season in 2021, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has patiently waited out several existing long-term contracts without issuing any new ones. Now, with their sights set on battling the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in the daunting NL West, the Giants have only $20.5 million of guaranteed money on the books for 2024, per Cot’s Contracts, and absolutely nothing committed for 2026 and beyond. The Yankees, for comparison, have $115.8 million committed to the 2024 payroll and $51 million on the books for 2027, which would be the fifth year of a potential Judge deal.
Not that it would or should stop the Yankees from bringing him back. The Yankees have a new offer on the table worth about $300 million over eight years, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, which would break the average annual value record for MLB position players. That’s after Judge reportedly had extensive meetings with the Giants prior to Thanksgiving.
Combine San Francisco’s war chest, Yankees fans’ desperation to keep their gilded face of the franchise, Judge’s California upbringing and his epic contract year, and you have one of the most explosive choices in the history of MLB free agency.
Oh, and to add a little more spice, the Giants will play the Yankees in the Bronx on Opening Day.
According to Passan, Judge could make his decision during next week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego. As the baseball world awaits a choice that could shift the course of at least two franchises and reset the free-agent market’s agenda, I wanted to know which hot stove tropes — the hometown team, the extension breakdown — have held true for previous big- ticket free agents.
Can history tell us anything about which way Judge is likely leaning?
Could hometown influence pull Judge toward the Giants?
During Judge’s rookie year — when he bashed a measly 52 homers — the 6-foot-7 slugger took the opportunity of his first visit to Oakland as a major-leaguer to reminisce about his Little League days. He didn’t follow the A’s, he told NJ.com’s Randy Miller. Instead, he had adopted the uniform number and even mimicked the batting stance of his favorite player from the World Series-bound 2002 Giants.
Lest you think you know where this is going, think again.
Judge’s favorite player was not Bonds but shortstop Rich Aurilia. Why?
“My dad’s favorite number is 35, so as a kid I wore 35, and Rich Aurilia was the shortstop for my favorite team, and he wore 35,” Judge told NJ.com. “I liked watching him.”
That’s all to say: People are complicated. They make choices, big and small, for all sorts of reasons — most of which won’t meet the eye on a cursory glance of a Baseball Reference or Wikipedia page. And top free agents have made it clear that whatever gravitational pull hometown teams have, it doesn’t tend to overwhelm other forces.
In sorting through the 100 most lucrative contracts (by total value) in MLB history, I looked for free-agent pursuits in which the player’s local team made reported efforts to sign him. Two bits of good news for Yankees fans emerged: Local ties are hard to define, and they’re even harder to cash in on.
Teams and reporters love a good narrative and will play up “connections” that you have to really squint to see. The Colorado Rockies’ interest in Kris Bryant last offseason was described as “a geographic fit” because he is from Las Vegas. MLB.com reported the buildup to the deal by mentioning that Bryant’s hometown was “a short plane ride away from Denver.” By that patently ridiculous standard, pretty much any player who hails from a state east of the Mississippi would count as a hometown hero for half a dozen teams. Las Vegas is 748 miles from Denver; that’s like tying Nashville natives to the Nationals and Washington DC, which is a comparatively short 666 miles away.
And even when there is an actual link, it definitely doesn’t rule the day. Among those 100 largest deals, I found 11 instances in which a team reportedly targeted a free-agent star from its region, and only one of those signed. That case — Freddie Freeman with the Dodgers last offseason — wasn’t exactly the picture of a happy homecoming.
You can find other examples of lower-dollar players making an effort to land near their homes or birthplaces — take Charlie Morton narrowing his recent options to Atlanta and Florida teams to be near his family — but they are generally exceptions, not the rule. More players seem to live by Carlos Correa’s logic that virtually every American city has plenty to offer the millionaire baseball star.
In fact, most big-ticket free-agent chases demonstrate how many other priorities come before hometown proximity. Orange County kid Gerrit Cole was once hailed as a prime candidate to lead the Los Angeles Angels, but the surface-level guesswork didn’t account for his childhood Yankees fandom or the $25 million gap in offers. Another Yankees conquest, Mark Teixeira, did grow up rooting for his local team, the Baltimore Orioles, but chose the division rivals because of (what else?) a $30 million gap in offers.
And sometimes, believe it or not, even money won’t make the difference. The Texas Rangers offered Cliff Lee, a proud native of Rangers-obsessed Benton, Arkansas, more money than the Philadelphia Phillies, but Lee and his wife simply loved the Phillies in an earlier stint and wanted to go back.
Could failed Yankees extension negotiations point to a Judge exit?
A different pattern — one that will cheer Giants fans and worry Yankees faithful — shows up more clearly in the annals of major free-agent negotiations: Top players who make it all the way to the open market have overwhelmingly chosen to change teams.
Once again drawing from the league’s 100 largest contracts — the smallest of which is Carlos Correa’s $105 million deal from last offseason, for reference — we can see that a player of this caliber reaching free agency without agreeing to an extension has not boded well for his former employer. Of those 100 deals, 46 were extensions, and one was Masahiro Tanaka coming over from Japan without an existing MLB team.
Of the 53 stars who signed after all 30 teams (theoretically) had a chance to bid, 47 left for a new home, and only six returned to their teams. Now, not all player-team relationships are created equally. Of the 53 players to hit the market, only 22 had played their entire careers for the club with which they made their major-league debuts. Still, even among those 22, only one stayed: Stephen Strasburg after the Nationals’ triumphant World Series victory in 2019.
But there are some notable Judge-shaped entries who bucked the trend. After winning AL MVP for the Yankees in 2007, Alex Rodriguez exercised an opt-out clause and entered free agency, only to quickly return to the Bronx. Orioles slugger Chris Davis reached free agency coming off an MLB-leading 47-homer season in 2015 and wound up re-signing with Baltimore. And it must be noted that any conversation about the Yankees in free agency is simply different than conversations about the A’s, Guardians or even the Giants. If GM Brian Cashman and team owner Hal Steinbrenner want to pony up to keep Judge, they almost certainly can.
Still, recent seasons have given us plenty of reminders that seemingly unbreakable team-player bonds can dissolve at alarming speed. Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor and Juan Soto were all traded when they rebuffed pre-market extension overtures. Correa and Corey Seager bolted big-spending contenders for eager clubs looking for a spark. The Yankees weren’t about to trade Judge, but the takeaway — a disheartening one for most fans — is clear: Teams are more than willing to walk away over price.
The industry still expects Judge to re-sign with the Yankees, according to Passan’s report, but we simply don’t know how close that reported $300 million offer is to their ceiling, how willing Judge is to give up the pinstripes or whether some other factor (total years, a no-trade clause) might influence his thinking.
The travails of other stars who have walked this highly scrutinized road say it wouldn’t be a surprise if Judge walked into Yankee Stadium in late March wearing orange and black. But it probably won’t be a choice made out of hometown sentiment.