Yankees offseason primer: Aaron Judge top priority. Who could join him?

The center of Yanks‘ Offseason worries can be summed up in one number and two words: 62 home runs.

The Yankees must do whatever it takes to re-sign the free agent outfielder Aaron Richter, who turned down the team’s offered contract extension earlier this spring, which would have guaranteed him $213.5 million over seven years. The judge broke an American League record of 62 home runs to prove he made the right decision.

Judge led the majors in home runs, RBI (131), OPS (1,111), OPS+ (211), total bases (391), and runs scored (133) on his way to a third Silver Slugger Award of his career and big favorite AL MVP – Win honors.

Now industry experts believe Judge has set his sights on making about $320 million over eight years in what would instantly become one of the largest free agent deals in MLB history. The Yankees want to be the team that sends him those paychecks, but they also have other off-season priorities on deck. That’s what the Yankees should focus on.

1. Keep Aaron Judge in pinstripes

While this is a self-evident No. 1 priority for the Yankees, there have been some recent developments that should encourage No. 99 fans.

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner didn’t mince his words and didn’t hold back his optimism as he gushed about the team’s and league’s most prominent free agent. In a recent interview with YES Network, Steinbrenner expressed his unwavering confidence that the Yankees will convince Judge to stay in pinstripes, going so far as to say the organization will consider nominating him as the next captain if he returns signs with the Yankees.

Now there’s no need to get fanbase hoping that Judge might become the franchise’s first captain since Derek Jeter, who held that responsibility from 2003 to 2014, if Steinbrenner wasn’t almost certain Judge would re-sign. Steinbrenner has entered this fledgling offseason with plenty of public assurances that, like a good Yankee, Judge will do what’s best for him and the team and agree to a deal.

Related: Did Aaron Judge Have The Best Walk Year In MLB History?

“My budget for Judge will be what I think we can do,” Steinbrenner said at last week’s owners meetings. “Of course it’s not limitless. But… I think we’ll be able to sign Aaron. That won’t stop me from signing other people.”

That last line from Steinbrenner is crucial here, as Judge is not only looking for a long-term deal worth $300 million, but also wants to stay with a team committed to winning. Steinbrenner’s recent briefing suggested a promise to Judge and players that even after Judge’s potential signing, the front office will continue to spend heavily to build a full, successful roster around him. That kind of aggression was rare for Steinbrenner, the son of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who was known for his winning-at-all-costs attitude. Perhaps the judge’s agency is the kind of shock the Steinbrenner descendant needed to spend aggressively.

Time will tell and actions will tell, but Yankees fans should at least have some peace of mind about Judge based on Steinbrenner’s latest allegations.

Aaron Judge, Trea Turner and Justin Verlander top Ben Verlander’s list of the top 10 MLB free agents

Aaron Judge, Trea Turner and Justin Verlander top Ben Verlander's list of the top 10 MLB free agents

Ben Verlander and Alex Curry take a look at MLB’s Free Agent Frenzy with Jacob deGrom, Aaron Judge, Dansby Swanson, Trea Turner, Willson Contreras, Kodai Senga and many others in the market.

2. Keep Rizzo

Accomplished first baseman Anthony Rizzo became a staple of the Yankees clubhouse that season, and his leadership and closeness to much of the roster, especially Judge, were always the primary reasons for bringing Rizzo back to the Bronx. He also fit right into that Yankee culture and immediately gained respect from the fan base after being traded by the Cubs at last year’s trade deadline.

Rizzo had a .230/.338/.466 slash line with 125 OPS+ in his two-and-a-half seasons with the Yankees. Last season, the left-hander hit his career high in home runs at 32. His wRC+ was 132 in 2022, indicating he was 32% above the league average at the plate. His 10.6% walk rate last season was the fifth best among Yankees hitters with at least 300 plate appearances. Also, once defensive shifts are banned, Rizzo’s left-handed slugger is expected to find more success next year and beyond.

Despite the numerous reasons the Yankees already had to sign Rizzo, when rumors broke about the Astros’ interest in the 33-year-old first baseman, closing the deal only became more important for Yankees GM Brian Cashman – and soon. Before Astros owner Jim Crane could lure Rizzo into the defending champion’s domain, Cashman made an offer Rizzo couldn’t seem to refuse.

The Yankees and Rizzo agreed to a two-year, $40 million contract, including a $17 million guarantee for 2023 and 2024, followed by a $17 million club option in 2025 with a $6 million buyout Dollar. Rizzo had already turned down the team’s $19.65 million one-year qualifying offer, and thanks to the buyout, he’ll be getting slightly more than that QO annually, with the security of a multi-year deal to boot.

3. Improve the outfield and lineup with potential target Masataka Yoshida

Of course, the first name everyone will think of when it comes to the Yankees outfield this winter is Judge. But the Bombers have more to do — especially in left field — with or without the return of their 62-homer slugger.

Last season, the Yankees had a 24th-place finish in wRC+ (89) in left field out of all 30 teams. In late July, they attempted to improve that area by trading for left fielders Andreas Benintendi, but the 28-year-old, who is now a free agent, only played 33 games for the Yankees before ending his season with an injury in September. The Yankees can still bring Benintendi back and expect better results if they’re healthy, but reports suggest they’re looking elsewhere — as much as 7,000 miles away.

According to multiple reports, Japanese left-hander and left fielder Masataka Yoshida was on the Yankees’ radar.

Yoshida, 29, attracted interest from MLB clubs after his OPS jumped to a career-high 1.007 this season. For the Orix Buffaloes championship, Yoshida walked 82 times and struck just 42 times in 515 plate appearances. He’s been described as an exceptional contact hitter, and that kind of profile would really suit the Yankees at the top of their lineup. And just like Rizzo, Yoshida’s left-handed slugger is expected to find more success once the MLB bans shifting in the field. He could certainly be the spark for the Yankees’ needs outfield.

4. Big splash at shortstop

In the event Judge doesn’t return to the Yankees, they could use that money for a bigger splash at the shortstop. The Free Agency class at Shortstop is star-studded this offseason Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson headlining the group. The Yankees could spend big and improve in the hole with any of these tried-and-tested clubs and gloves. If they do, they might have some interesting options open to them.

The Yankees have an influx of infielders ready for the Major League — including prospects Anthony Volpe, Oswald Peraza and Oswald Cabrera, as well Gleyber Torres and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. At last week’s GM meetings, Cashman hinted that the Yankees are focused on internal options rather than free agency pricing. Cashman went so far as to specifically name Volpe, Peraza and Cabrera as infielders who will be fighting for that shortstop role in spring training.

Related: Xander Bogaerts is free agency’s safest shortstop. Here’s why

There’s some evidence the Yankees still lack that cornerstone in their roster seven years after Jeter’s retirement. It remains to be seen whether this player will emerge internally, from the Yankees farm system, or through free agencies when this winter would be the ideal time to spend big.

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