What if Yankees don’t re-sign Aaron Judge?

Many expect the Yankees to do what it takes to re-sign Aaron Judge. But what if they don’t?

Many expected the Cardinals to re-sign Albert Pujols after the 2011 season, and the Braves to re-sign Freddie Freeman after 2021. Neither did. Point is, when a player reaches the open market, anything is possible.

The Bronx Bombers may want to keep Judge, but there’s a chance he’ll get a better offer from the Giants or Dodgers and take the opportunity to return to his native California. Losing the reigning American League MVP would undoubtedly be devastating for the Yankees and their legion of fans, but the club would have to turn the page quickly.

Here are four moves New York could make if the unthinkable happened and Judge signed with another team.

1) Sign Carlos Correa or Trea Turner

This would be a must. New York might be satisfied with its current options at shortstop, which include prospects Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza and the returning Isiah Kiner-Falefa. But if Judge is gone, the Yanks would need a superstar-level talent to fill the massive void left both on and off the field.

Enter Correa or Turner. Although neither would be able to directly replace Judge’s offensive output or some of the intangibles he brings to a roster, signing either of the top two shortstops on the market would do a lot to soften the blow of the Yanks losing their best player and to placate a disappointed fan base.

2) Sign Cody Bellinger

Even if the Yankees were able to land Correa or Turner, they’d still need to do something about their opening in right field. Brandon Nimmothe second-best outfielder on the market after Judge, is a nice player who has New York experience, but he has Draft compensation attached to him after declining the Mets’ qualifying offer. Signing Nimmo would cost the Yankees their second- and fifth-highest picks in the 2023 Draft (or their third- and sixth-highest picks if they also signed Turner, another QO free agent), plus $1 million from their international bonus pool.

So how about replacing one MVP with another by signing Bellinger instead? Bellinger hasn’t hit like an MVP since he won NL honors in 2019, of course, leading to him being non-tendered by the Dodgers on Friday. But the left-handed slugger is still only 27 years old. And however slim the chances are that he can recapture his MVP form at the plate, Belli is arguably the only free-agent outfielder who offers an offensive ceiling anywhere near Judge’s. He’s also a Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder who would give New York a capable defensive replacement for Judge in right.

It’s a worthwhile gamble for a Yanks organization that was able to resurrect the career of a veteran Matt Carpenter just last season.

With Gerrit Cole signed to a long-term deal and Nestor Cortes, Luis Severino, Frankie Montas, Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt under control through 2023 or longer, the Yankees’ rotation seems to be in decent shape heading into 2023. But there are also some question marks. First of all, New York lacks rotation depth, which could prove problematic after Severino, Montas and German all missed time with arm injuries in 2022. The Yanks are also counting on Cortes replicating last season’s breakout. What if he takes a step back?

For those reasons, the Yankees should strongly consider going after one of the top starters on the market even if Judge returns. And if he signs elsewhere? All the more reason to do it.

Of the top three free-agent starters — Verlander, Jacob deGrom and Carlos Rodón — Verlander is arguably the most attractive option. He may be the oldest of the three by far, but he’s also the only one who doesn’t have a qualifying offer attached to him. He’ll require a shorter deal than Rodón and comes with fewer durability questions than deGrom, even with Tommy John surgery in his recent past.

Furthermore, signing Verlander would rectify a history-altering decision the Yankees made a half-decade ago. Yankees ownership’s unwillingness to take on Verlander’s contract when the Tigers made him available in 2017 may have cost the team multiple titles. The Astros ultimately traded for Verlander and went on to defeat the Yankees in that year’s ALCS, then knocked out New York in 2019 and 2022 as well.

The Yanks actually tried to sign Verlander when he reached free agency a year ago coming off Tommy John surgery, reportedly offering him a one-year deal for $25 million. But the right-hander went back to Houston for the same salary (plus a 2023 option) and turned in a Cy Young Award-winning campaign, his third.

It’s time, at long last, to fit Verlander for pinstripes.

4) Explore the trade market for another outfielder

In our hypothetical scenario, the Yankees would still be a bit short on offense. Their best chance to upgrade is in left field, where Aaron Hicks is currently penciled in as the 2023 starter. The 33-year-old’s seven-year, $70 million deal runs through 2025, but that might be a sunk cost for the Yanks after Hicks put up an 83 OPS+ with 12 homers in 162 games over the past two seasons.

Michael Conforto, Andrew Benintendi and Japanese star Masataka Yoshida are among the best free-agent outfielders without a QO attached to them, but it’s possible the previous three moves we mentioned would put New York close to its upper payroll limit.

If that’s the case, the trade market would make more sense, with the Cubs’ Ian Happ (controllable through 2023), the Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds (controllable through 2025) and the D-backs’ Daulton Varshaw (controllable through 2026) among the potential targets.

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