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What the Aaron Judge tea leaves say about his Yankees future

Clues. That is what is available, since Aaron Judge is well on his way to graduating summa cum laude from the Derek Jeter school for saying many words while simultaneously saying nothing at all. His representatives, meanwhile, make the CIA seem like a chatty organization by comparison.

So if you are trying for an early offseason read on where Judge might play next, you are basically reduced to tea-leaf reading, hunches and history. Before you put hot water on the tea or throw cold water on the theories, let’s try to be detectives to determine if the signs so far lean toward a Yankee reunion:

1. Judge is not going to make a multi-hundred-million-dollar decision based on where his friends play. If that were the case, then the Yanks might as well be as craven as the Knicks were in enlisting Jalen Brunson’s father, Rick, as an assistant coach by naming Wayne Judge the associate hitting coach.

But signing Anthony Rizzo is, at minimum for the Yankees, like sipping chicken soup when ill – it can’t hurt. Rizzo is friend and confidant to Judge; someone the slugger would want back to share the clubhouse and leadership. Remember that the Yankees traded for Tyler Wade in July and stashed him in the minors when his most discernible skill appeared to be pal of Judge.

Aaron Judge (l.) celebrates with Anthony Rizzo during Game 1 of the Yankees' ALDS against the Guardians on Oct. 11, 2022.
Aaron Judge (l.) celebrates with Anthony Rizzo during Game 1 of the Yankees’ ALDS against the Guardians on Oct. 11, 2022.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

The Yankees signed Rizzo to a two-year, $40 million pact. Could they have seen if having the compensation tied to rejecting the qualifying offer along with age (33) and some back problems chilled his market? Could they have played it out to see if the Astro rumors were a plant to gain leverage?

Sure, but why? What is the least they might have gotten him for? Two years at $34 million perhaps? Instead, they did what a big-market team should for something they want/need. And they needed the lefty bat, fearlessness in big games and sound defense with inexperienced players about to inhabit the middle infield. Plus, it signaled to Priority No. 1 that not only is his pal back, but the team will invest to chase a title.

2. Hal Steinbrenner said he has talked multiple times to Judge since the postseason ended, including once in person. He is not delegating. The head man is telling Judge to his face he wants him back. And if he is telling reporters that there is plenty of dough for Judge and to improve the team, then Judge’s camp knows that too.

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner looks on during a Paul O'Neill's number retirement ceremony on Aug. 21, 2022.
Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner looks on during a Paul O’Neill’s number retirement ceremony on Aug. 21, 2022.
AP

Is part of this a subliminal message from Steinbrenner to the industry not to waste time because the Yanks will just outbid them? Maybe. But Steinbrenner has taken the Bronx criticism, particularly the booing at the Jeter ceremony, hard. He is so much more measured than his father. Still, the relentless chorus that he is cheap and doesn’t care is a coat of dirt he is having difficulty removing, to his chagrin.

The logical, MBA side of Steinbrenner knows in the long term, a deal with Judge will probably be regrettable. Most fans aren’t going to calculate that. There is only get it done or don’t get it done. As he did in 2022, Judge will sell a lot of tickets, move a lot of merchandise and be the face of Yankee advertising. So there is a financial offset plus an easier path to short-term winning by keeping Judge (how much might the Yanks have to spend on non-Judge pieces to compensate for his loss?)

Maybe this is all a sham designed by Steinbrenner to publicly begin to build an alibi for Judge’s departure – I met with him, offered the moon and the captaincy and he still left. But this feels more familiar to when Steinbrenner made his offseason about one player – signing Gerrit Cole, re-signing DJ LeMahieu – and was laser focused to that aim. Steinbrenner is normally publicly reticent. But in this instance, he is on the record that retaining Judge is his obsession. Therefore, he has to understand that failure to do so will be his failure alone and deepen the animosity directed by the fan base. Would he really risk that if he did not feel he will keep Judge?

Aaron Judge after hitting a home run in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Guardians on Oct. 18, 2022.
Aaron Judge after hitting a home run in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Guardians on Oct. 18, 2022.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

3. Judge and his camp have not publicly dabbled with other teams. Maybe that is occurring behind the scenes. Maybe it is just early in the process – we are not seeing a Carlos Correa photo op in front of the ivied walls at Wrigley Field, for example.

But if they were trying to financially unease the Yankees or wanted to extract anguish because they were still irate that Brian Cashman announced the seven-year, $213.5 million extension offer in spring, then wouldn’t there be a picture of a bearded Judge getting off a plane in California surfacing in 3-2-1…?

Conversely, if Judge’s goal really is to stay a Yankee, then he knows to follow the Jeter edict – never even be connected talking to another team, so as to keep the relationship with the fans as pure as possible. Judge is not going to leave money on the table, as he showed by spurning the spring offer. Free agency is always laced with twists, turns and surprises, so nothing is assured.

However, if Steinbrenner is essentially willing to pay in full for those 62 homers and Judge wants to stay, then don’t the early clues – Rizzo’s signing, Steinbrenner’s direct involvement that puts the bulls-eye on the owner, the lack of anything but rumors about other teams – all go in one direction?

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