(Despite a glamorous debut, Aaron Judge struggled mightily in his first major league stint late last season, one that ended prematurely thanks to injury. Can he carry his 2016 Triple-A dominance to the Bronx in 2017? Jason Farmer/Times-Tribune Photographer)
There’s only two remaining. Our countdown of the Top 15 prospects who could help the Yankees this season continues with a guy who briefly helped them last season. Here’s No. 2, Aaron Judge.
Weight: 275 pounds
40-man roster: Yes
Judge entered 2016 looking to put the Triple-A struggles that plagued him in 2015 behind. For a while, it looked as if he couldn’t. Through 50 games, Judge essentially hit rock bottom. He was hitting just .221 with seven home runs, 25 RBIs, nine doubles and a whopping 58 strikeouts. Fans began to worry but Judge kept his composure. Then, it clicked.
Judge owned the month of June, hitting .343 with nine homers, 25 RBIs, 30 runs, 16 extra-base hits and slash lines of .477/.686/1.163. He showed much better plate discipline, as well, drawing 21 walks. That performance earned him the International League’s Player of the Month and he was elected to play in the Triple-A All-Star Game and participate in the Home Run Derby.
Unfortunately for Judge, he didn’t partake, as a mild PCL sprain and a bone bruise suffered just days before the all-star break sidelined him for about three and a half weeks. When he returned Aug. 2, Judge picked up right where he left off. He batted .353 in his next 10 games with three home runs and 11 RBIs, including a grand slam off Reynaldo Lopez, who was one of Washington’s top pitching prospects at the time, in what proved to be Judge’s PNC Field finale.
Judge’s final game in a RailRiders uniform came at Rochester on Aug. 12, which included a two-run homer in his last at-bat. The next afternoon, Judge was in Yankee Stadium for his major league debut and what a debut it was. Right after Tyler Austin homered in his first career at-bat, Judge did the same with a tape-measure shot to straightaway center field. In doing so, they became the first teammates in MLB history to homer in their first at-bats in the same game.
That debut, however, did not foreshadow success to come for Judge. Simply put, Judge struggled mightily over 27 games, hitting .179 with four homers, 10 RBIs and 42 (!) strikeouts in 84 at-bats before a strained right oblique ended his season Sept. 14.
The obvious feature that strikes you about Judge’s game is his power. First of all, trust me when I tell you this. Judge is all of his 6-foot-7, 275-pound billing. Many players’ height and weight tend to not be accurate on rosters sheets and media guides. Judge is one of those exceptions.
The combination of size and strength allow him to generate that impressive raw power. But his long arms allow for some holes in his swing, which pitchers at the upper levels exposed. Judge can work counts and drive the ball all over the field but the big flaw is his strikeout rate. There’s no way around it. Judge is going to strike out and he’s probably going to strike out a lot. It’s whether he can keep that number down enough so that he can still be a productive hitter.
While most of the attention is on Judge’s bat, his defense and ability to run the bases are very underrated. Judge has a strong arm and he has shown the ability to throw runners out, as you’ll see in a video below. His long strides allow him to cover a great amount of ground to make plays that not too many outfielders can make. Those strides also make him a threat on the base paths. He doesn’t have blazing speed but he’s no slouch. And he’s a smart base runner who isn’t going to run his team out of innings.
As has been the case with several prospects, we’ll start you off with a profile on Judge from the Yankees. Highlights and analysis from the likes of RailRiders manager Al Pedrique and former hitting coach Tom Wilson.
Last spring, Judge waited on a breaking ball and blasted an opposite-field three-run homer against the Red Sox.
In this year’s spring training opener, Judge absolutely destroyed a fastball off the scoreboard in left-center field.
That home run was hit in an eerily similar spot to his grand slam off Lopez at PNC Field last summer.
Though it sometimes seems like the only thing Judge can do is hit mammoth home runs, he’s proven to be a very reliable defender. Here he last year firing to the plate and to complete a double play to end the inning.
As recently as Wednesday, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that Judge potentially could begin the season back with the RailRiders, citing the need for everyday playing time. It seemed unimaginable given the spring Judge has had. On Thursday, though, Girardi eased the stress on what seemed like every Yankees fan when he named Judge the team’s Opening Day right fielder.
Let’s face it, Judge earned that right. In 24 Grapefruit League games entering Friday night’s exhibition at Atlanta’s brand new SunTrust Park, Judge hit .344 (21 for 61) with three home runs, seven RBIs and a .960 OPS and only struck out 13 times.
Just because Judge enters the regular season certainly doesn’t mean it’s his for the whole season. Judge has to perform well in order to keep his job. Yes, that’s an obvious statement regarding any job in this world. But in Judge’s case, there is a ton of outfield talent rising through the organization. Guys like Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler and Billy McKinney all are waiting in the wings. Not to mention, Aaron Hicks is currently the Yankees’ fourth outfielder and I’m sure they would not have an issue inserting him into the lineup. And keep in mind that Judge still has options to the minors remaining. Strong performances by either of them combined with struggles from Judge could put him on the hot seat.