While Astros fans continue to bask in the glow of their most recent championship, and enjoy schadenfreude scrolling the social media feeds of Dodgers fans and sanctimonious sports writers trying to juggle the 2017 narrative into the facts of the Astros being the dominant force in the AL and MLB, there is 4 months of off-season to navigate. Given that the other pro sports options for Houston are, uh, not going to offer the same degree of success seen with the Astros, this is a great opportunity to engage in some fun speculation. So, let’s image what the Astros might or might not do in the off-season as they look to do what no team has done this century/millennium, defend their second World Series title.
Even the World Champion Astros have some areas needing improvement, especially since the other 29 teams out there won’t stand pat. One area of concern for them is in the outfield. Kyle Tucker locks down one of the OF spots, and from time-to-time, Yordan Alvarez can offer some outfield play on non-DH days. Yet, the remaining outfield position since the departure of George Springer has seen a rotating cast of characters that have their moments, but haven’t come close to matching the all-around game he provided (perhaps Chas McCormick can build on his playoff success?). Throw in the significant time that pending free agent OF Michael Brantley missed due to injury, and you see one off-season focus area.
In the free agent market, there will be quite a few outfielders to consider. The biggest, literally and figuratively, will be one Mr. Aaron Judge. In the unlikely event you haven’t followed any sporting news, or social media, or any form of electronic communication that was not interrupted in late September/early October to bring you updates on all things Aaron Judge, here is a brief snapshot of what he did this season:
- 62 Home Runs
- 131 RBIs
- Slash line: .311/.425/.686
- OPS: 1.111
- 240 Home Runs
- 497 RBIs
- Slash Line: .284/.394/.583
- OPS: .987
With the free agency frenzy about to kick off, Judge will be the #1 focus. Certainly the Yankees figure to be the top suitor, even if they will have to pay a lot more now than they hoped for in April. Judge is a California native, so that puts the Giants in play. The Dodgers also have the money and wherewithal to make a run at Judge. Probably all 30 teams in MLB, no matter how small of a realistic chance, are considering their options and would make an offer to Judge.
While there is no reporting that links Judge to Houston, let’s just have a little fun and imagine if Houston and Judge decided that a long-term business relationship is in both of their interests ala Kevin Durant and the 2010s Golden State Warriors.
- A Top of the Line-Up From Hell: Picture this for a top-of-the-order batting lineup (notional):
Just who, exactly, do you plan to pitch around? Weather Altuve and Pena? Pray you can get them out. Pitch around Judge to get to Alvarez? Good luck. Oh, pitch around them to get to Bregman? Want to dance with Tucker? Maybe...maybe you survive to get to the bottom third of the order, but that top 6 alone should scare the living Hades out of any pitcher. Judge and Alvarez in the same lineup…forget the Judge/Stanton combination, you are looking at Ruth/Gehrig comparisons. Judge and Alvarez should combine for no less than 90-95 HRs/180-200 RBIs in that type of situation. Opposing pitchers would never wear white pants again…or a lot of them would suddenly come down with an ‘Astros-23 Virus’ that would keep them out of series against the Houston team.
- Outfield Defense: Judge was not a Gold Glove winner, but he can provide better than expected defense. Given his 6-7 frame, he can cover a lot of ground very quickly, and he has a strong arm. He is experienced at Right and Center Field, so there is flexibility where he is employeed.
- “If you can’t beat ‘em…”: Judge got to 3 ALCS matchups with the Yankees, but each time, it was the Astros that halted his advancement. While Judge may still have some personal resentment from 2017, he would be joining the stronger team, one that just came off of a World Series championship, which just swept his previous team, even after his best season. The Astros would still maintain a core of young, affordable pitchers, which would make it kinda feasible for a team like the Astros to take on a free agent like Judge and not lose that much in competitive depth.
- Astros Troll Factor: Think the Yankees fans loath the Astros now, between the sign-stealing and how the increasing domination of the Bronx Bombers? What would they think if their most dangerous rival took their best player and put him in the navy and orange? How soul-crushing would that be? As Ruth was to the Red Sox, Judge would be to the Yankees. Also, sportswriters with extreme ambivalence about the Astros, if not outright loathing, who so salivated over Judge this past season, would be twisting themselves in literary and logical knots in their coverage of the Astros and Judge. Schadenfreude-gasm!!!!!!
- Off-field revenue: The Judge jersey is among the top sellers in MLB. Any team with him on it will be getting that much more trademark and merchandising revenue. More primetime TV dates and more exposure will mean more money in tickets and ads. Crane would probably be swimming in actual pools of gold coins ala Scrooge McDuck in that instance.
- Health: Judge has been fairly healthy the past two seasons, but historically, he has been known to miss significant time for various ailments. He will be 31 to start the 2023 season. Can his body hold up in the prime years of the contract, to say nothing of the later stages of the deal?
- Team Depth: Even a team built like the Astros has limits. Taking on Judge and his likely salary will limit what the Astros can do to address other part of the team, at the major and minor league levels over the next few years.
- The Contract: If Judge rejected a 7 year/$213.5M deal, then you can just imagine what it will take to land him. Teams will need to be ready to invest BBIIIGGG money, and the annual value for his services could easily top $40M a year. For the Astros, this may be a bridge too far. 6 years/$150 was too much for Houston with Springer, and a younger Carlos Correa did not get $35M/year from Houston. Would Houston drop over $300-$350M for Judge, when it didn’t want to pay for the other stars at a cheaper rate? Additionally, taking on Judge will place any team like the Astros deep into the luxury tax realm. Houston really doesn’t like that tax, and if they have any hopes of keeping out of the major penalties, they would have to serious scrimp on other positions, likely to the detriment of competitive balance.
- Age: Judge is looking for the Big Payday, but if he gets the 8 years or so guaranteed money, the back end of the contract, when Judge is 39, will likely be a major albatross for whatever franchise makes that deal. His bat will likely keep him an asset, but his overall value relative to the deal will decrease over time, and moving it will be hard, if not all-out impossible. Throw in any injuries (always a possibility with him), and the contract could become that much more onerous, especially for organizations that like to maintain flexibility like the Astros.
While adding Judge to the lineup could vault Houston’s offense to historic levels, it is hard to see the Astros breaking the bank for him. For Houston, they are apt to look towards more affordable outfielders that won’t hamstring overall team resources. Besides, while the Giants or the Dodgers can get his services, the Yankees would be stupid not to re-sign Judge. In addition to his on-field talent, he is the top sports star in New York right now. Not since the prime of Jeter has there been a player like this for the Yankees. The blowback if Judge leaves…not a Yankees fan, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the Yankees official social media accounts or public relations firms the day that happens. Maybe it drives them into higher tax penalties, but the Yankees are the Yankees. They have the money and resources to make it happen and still field a contending team. Enough to upend the Astros? There’s more than a little work for them still to do, but sans Judge, the Yankees will be that much further away from competing with Houston.