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Gerrit Cole’s dips are a nine-figure Yankees issue — now it could be the same for Aaron Judge

New York Post logo: MainLogo New York Post 12/9/2022 Dan Martin

Three years ago, during an offseason in which Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner made it clear he intended to spend in free agency, the winter meetings were at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego.

The Yankees came away from those meetings with a nine-year, $324 million contract for Gerrit Cole, the top pitcher on the market.

This week, with the winter meetings right back at the same hotel, Steinbrenner had a similar — and even more clear — focus on Aaron Judge.

And it ended in the same fashion, with Steinbrenner bumping an existing offer up by a year at the same annual salary, to keep Judge with the Yankees.

Two years prior to the Cole signing, the Yankees shook up the winter meetings in Orlando by trading for Giancarlo Stanton and taking on $265 million of the contract he had signed with the Marlins.

© Provided by New York Post Hal Steinbrenner secured Gerrit Cole (pictured next to his wife, Amy) with a $324 million deal in free agency following the 2019 season.AP

Judge, Cole and, to a lesser extent, Stanton, now will be linked for the rest of their careers, which will almost certainly be completed in The Bronx.

Now they just have to win. And the sooner the better.

Judge, who will turn 31 in April, is coming off a season in which he led the majors with a WAR of 11.4, by Fangraphs’ formula. It was a number he had only previously approached as a rookie in 2017, when he put up 8.7 fWAR.

Cole had a WAR of 7.5 in Houston in his final season leading into free agency.

After the 2020 season was impacted by COVID, that number dipped to 5.2 in 2021 and 3.3 last season.

Cole, 32, led the majors in strikeouts (257) and games started (33) last season, but he also gave up an AL-high 33 home runs.

While there is concern around the league about how both Cole’s and Judge’s contracts will age, there’s also no guarantee they ever will be as productive as they were during their walk years.

© Provided by New York Post Aaron Judge may find it difficult to live up to the standard he established during a record-setting 2022 season.Getty Images

Judge likely won’t challenge his own American League home run record again, and Cole probably isn’t going to be able to reach the 326 strikeouts he had in 2018 with the Astros.

But at the conclusion of the winter meetings this week, not long after the news of Judge’s contract came out, one agent said the most important number Judge reached this year was 157. That was his career-high number of games played, to go with a career-high 696 plate appearances. Staying healthy allowed Judge to hit 62 homers, which is how he made himself indispensable to Steinbrenner.

Can he remain as durable in 2023 and beyond?

Judge often has been compared to the similarly massive Stanton, who was traded to the Yankees following his NL MVP season in 2017 after  exercising his no-trade clause to reject a deal with the Giants, the same team Judge spurned in returning to The Bronx.

Since being sent from the Marlins to the Yankees, Stanton has played at least 110 games just once and frequently has been limited to DH when he’s available.

The Yankees can ill-afford a similar fate with Judge.

© Provided by New York Post Giancarlo Stanton has struggled to stay on the field since arriving in a trade from the Marlins after the 2017 season.Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

If, however, Judge and Stanton and Cole lead the Yankees to their 28th World Series title and first since 2009, it won’t matter.

Closing time

Though Cole and Judge ended up in the same contract ballpark, the way in which the Yankees pursued each was very different.

After Cole agreed to his deal, he credited Yankees visiting clubhouse manager Lou Cucuzza for including a bottle of Cole’s favorite wine as part of the team’s pitch to land him.

For Judge, there was no magical bottle like the $900 bottle of Masseto Merlot that Cole received.

“Not this time,’’ Cucuzza said at the winter meetings this week. “This one was all Hal.”

That would be Hal Steinbrenner, who knew the only way to keep Judge was by matching the Giants’ offer of nine years and $360 million.

© Provided by New York Post The Yankees didn’t need visiting clubhouse manager Lou Cucuzza to send Judge a bottle of wine to convince him to stay with the Yankees as he had done in helping convince Cole to sign in 2019.Getty Images

As general manager Brian Cashman pointed out Wednesday, pursuing your own free agent is considerably different than going after a player who hasn’t been on your team.

Cashman referred to teams enlisting local celebrities to woo a player and throwing out the “red carpet.” But Judge likely wouldn’t be wowed by any stunt a franchise he has spent his entire career with could pull.

“Other teams are doing massive recruiting,’’ Cashman said. “We can’t match that.”

So while everyone from San Francisco other than the cast of “Full House” seemed to be trying to charm Judge into returning to the Bay Area, the Yankees had to hope his experience with the team was good enough to want him to make him stay.

And as Cashman noted, “The biggest thing would be the contract.”

Leadership lesson © Provided by New York Post CC Sabathia said the Yankees accepted Brett Gardner as their “captain” after Derek Jeter retired even without an official proclamation.Getty Images

All signs point to Judge becoming the Yankees’ next captain — their first since Derek Jeter retired.

CC Sabathia, who played with both Jeter and Judge, said such a move is unnecessary.

“He’s already the captain,’’ Sabathia told Sports+. “I was there when Derek left. [Brett Gardner] became the unofficial captain. We didn’t need him to have a title.”

Once Judge established himself as the leader of the team, according to Sabathia, the same was true of the right fielder.

“Judge is the captain by default,’’ Sabathia said. “It doesn’t make sense at this point to name him. He already is. Nothing changes if you give it to him, so why do it?”

The decision will be up to Steinbrenner, Cashman noted this week, though the GM didn’t sound opposed to the idea after previously stating Jeter should be the Yankees’ last captain.

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