MLB

Opinion: MLB’s salary system is broken and Aaron Judge is the latest to find out

TAMPA — Aaron Judge may be the biggest star on the largest stage in baseball and the New York Yankees’ top box-office draw since Derek Jeter.

He also happens to be one of the team's lowest-paid players. 

Judge will earn $684,300 this season, or about $300,000 less than Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw will earn for each start.

The 26-year-old Judge, who has been in the big leagues for two full seasons, understands how the system works. The Yankees have all the power the first three years he’s in the big leagues, an independent salary arbitrator takes care of the next three years, and then he hits free agency.

It’s why Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell got a mere $15,500 raise  – $10,000 of that built in with a league-wide increase in the minimum salary – to $573,700, even after winning last year’s Cy Young award. It’s why the New York Mets are paying closer Edwin Diaz just $607,425, after he led the majors in saves. It’s why the Milwaukee Brewers renewed reliever Josh Hader at $687,600, despite his setting a major-league strikeout record for left-handed relievers.

The Yankees realize this is the final year Judge won’t have any negotiating rights, and with his future earnings about to soar, they'd love to sign him to an extension that takes him through all of his arbitration years and delaying free agency.

At their price, of course.

It’s up to Judge whether he wants to gamble on himself each year through arbitration, or take the safe route and sign a long-term extension that could sacrifice potential earnings.

Judge has hit 83 home runs in his first 294 games. (Photo: Butch Dill, USA TODAY Sports)

Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, the reigning AL MVP, has opted to go year-by-year, and will earn $20 million this year, with two years left before his free agency.

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt went the safe route and signed a six-year, $32.5 million contract extension after his first year with Arizona, only to watch Chris Davis to sign a seven-year, $161 million contract with Baltimore three years later.

If Judge is going to sign a long-term extension, he probably wants to follow the model set by Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout. He signed a six-year, $144.5 million extension on March 29, 2014 after two years and 70 days of major-league service. It covered all of his arbitration and three free-agent years. Judge has two years and 51 days of service time, and is eligible for arbitration after this season.

“I’ve got a job to do, and that’s to focus on the field," Judge told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not paid to worry about all of the other stuff. That’s why you have an agent to handle things like that.

“So instead of me coming out and saying, 'They haven’t told me anything yet,’ I just let my agent handle it. Really, I don’t want them to bring that stuff to me now anyways. It can wait.

“We’re a long way away from free agency."

Yankees teammate Giancarlo Stanton, who signed a 13-year, $325 million extension with the Miami Marlins after his fourth full season, says his deal couldn’t have worked out any better. He got his money, an opt-out provision after the 2020 season, a full no-trade clause and is playing for the team he wants after vetoing trades to the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals.

Stanton says he shared his thoughts to Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks before he finalized his seven-year, $70 million extension this spring, but the subject hasn’t come up with Judge.

“I gave [Hicks] my perspective on it," Stanton said, “but it just depends on the individual. I would do the same thing again, but it’s not for everybody."

Yankees ace Luis Severino says he opted for security when he signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension in February, which helps calm financial anxiety now that he’s sidelined with shoulder inflammation. Setup man Dellin Betances signed a one-year, $5.1 million contract in his final arbitration year. The Yankees have discussed a long-term extension with him, he said, but not anything yet to sway him from free agency this winter.

“Those contracts have been good for some guys, and been really bad for other guys," Betances said. “I mean, it’s always good to secure your future, but at what price? I’ve done pretty well through arbitration."

Besides, he could be tripling his salary if he hits free agency as a closer and not a setup man.

“Can you imagine what he could get on the free-agent market?" Philadelphia Phillies closer David Robertson said. “My God, who wouldn’t want a guy like that on their team? Intimidating force. Throws 100. Strikes out everyone. He’s everything you want."

This is the time of year most young players are trying to decide whether to accept or reject long-term contract extensions. Once the season starts, the talks are normally tabled until next year. For many, it’s the hardest business decision they’ve ever been faced with in their young careers.

“It’s a question I want to ask because younger guys are being extended a lot now," said 24-year-old Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier. “It’s kind of like, “Do you bank on yourself or do you take what’s in front of you right now. I would probably bank on myself, but then again, I’ve never been offered as much money as these guys have been getting."

St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong hit 25 homers in just 108 games after being called up on May 28, 2017, in his rookie season, and was signing a six-year, $26 million extension the next spring.

“Having that financial security was big to me," DeJong said. “It kind of gave me more sense of peace. Having a sense of security helps you be able to perform with less burden on you.

“But for guys like Judge – the superstars – they should go to arbitration. I feel like teams are not going to project you to get better [in contract proposals], so he may not get the type of money he deserves if he signs now instead of waiting for a couple of years.

“Just based on his market value, he should be earning more than $20 million a year right now."

Judge could break Chicago Cubs infielder Kris Bryant’s $10.85 record for first-year salary-arbitration players, and top Betts’ $20 record million contract for a second-year player, but since Judge will be 30 years old when he’s eligible for free agency, teams may use his age against him.

“The system is flawed in baseball," said Mets starter Noah Syndergaard, 26. “You look at any other sport, you have young athletes making their [most] at 23 to 26. Guys like Aaron Judge, who was a college guy, and will be an older free agent, should be getting his most money now.

“Look at what he means to that team. The team is probably paying him 1/30th of what he’s worth now in terms of their revenue, and the money he’s bringing to that ballclub, and they’re paying him crap.

“So teams are saying, “We’re not going to pay you when you’re young, and we’re not going to pay you when you’re old, either.’

“It doesn’t make any sense to me."

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Judge refuses to stress about it, believing everything will work itself out. He saw Colorado Rockies All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado go through the arbitration process, and sign an eight-year, $260 million extension two weeks ago.

Who knows? In time, the Yankees may be offering him a record-setting deal too.

“I thought it was great what the Rockies did for Nolan," Judge said. “Guys like that, they give back to their teams, their cities, their communities, and you reward them. The Angels did the same with Trout earlier in his career. They were smart to lock him up.

“Let’s just wait and see what happens. You never know what could happen in a couple of years."

Pay the man now, or pay him later, but at some point, the Yankees will have no choice.

The clock is ticking, and everyone is watching.

“Anytime you’re an industry leader like [Judge], we're all going to be paying attention," Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino said. "I think everybody would like to go year-to-year, and if your arbitration number is really high to begin with, it’s probably easier to go year-to-year.

“But the reality is if somebody is offering you guaranteed money that’s going to change your family’s life, I can’t fault anybody for going that route.

“I can’t wait to see what happens."

Join the club.

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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