By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
It doesn’t really matter that Aaron Judge came in second in the American League MVP voting to Jose Altuve last week.
What matters is that Judge was, without a doubt, the Yankees’ MVP. And what matters even more is that whoever they decide to name as Joe Girardi’s successor cannot mess with the kid.
Judge proved the alterations he made to his swing last offseason created a potential career-hitting monster, possibly along the lines of NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton.
But if the wrong manager brings in the wrong hitting coach, that person could decide to tinker with something that’s very, very good right now. As a result of that meddling, Judge could turn back into the players who struggled so badly in his first taste of big-league ball at the end of 2016.
Remember that guy? He wasn’t even assured a roster spot last spring training.
Whether the next manager ends up being one of those already interviewed, such as Hensley Meulens, Chris Woodward, Aaron Boone, Rob Thomson, or Eric Wedge, or one of the others in the regiment of candidates Brian Cashman has lined up, he should make one thing clear to his hitting coach.
Hands off Judge.
Of course, if the Yanks do follow up on their initial inquiry into Stanton’s availability, it may not matter a lick whether Judge follows his rookie season with a monster sophomore year. Judge, in fact, might be exactly the cost for new Marlins owner Derek Jeter to ship off his 59-homer, 132-RBI hitting machine. Imagine Jeter automatically knocking down the Marlins’ payroll by unloading $295 million of salary over the next 10 years for a slugger who won’t turn 26 until April 26, and who won’t even be eligible for that huge free agent contract until 2023.
It’s enticing on that end. But the Yanks, after tiring of paying a luxury tax the past 14 years, are looking to get under next year’s $197 million threshold. They’ve got the salaries of Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Jaime Garcia, Matt Holliday, and Todd Frazier coming off the books — a total of $84 million. And with the possibility of spending about $30 million on free agents, the addition of a Stanton and the $25 million he’s owed in 2018 would pretty much blow the rest of the offseason out of the water.
But that’s a longshot, anyway. The key here is keeping Judge healthy and productive. Sure, he had his flaws last year. That six-week slump that had him looking like some 17-year-old prospect trying to figure out Single-A pitching probably cost him a good chunk of the 27 first-place votes that went to Altuve. And his regression in the playoffs to a flailing mess, swinging wildly at seemingly every breaking pitch at the knees, drew as much sadness as the midseason slump.
But what would really be sad would be a new hitting coach — the wrong hitting coach — coming in and deciding to overhaul Judge yet again, especially if that coach is under orders from a new hire who never managed a team before.
Hitters are delicate animals. Too much tinkering can ruin a good thing. And given the year Judge had and the potential for true greatness in an age driven by the long ball, it would be a shame if the wrong guy turned a 52-homer rookie talent into something less.
Judge’s future is not guaranteed, of course. His rookie production may, indeed, not represent his true career trajectory. That will become apparent soon enough.
What is certain is that too much adjustment can send that arc in a downward plunge quickly. Girardi was patient enough to let Judge figure things out himself as he struggled through July and August. And when Judge finally did, he rewarded his manager with a stupendous September.
Girardi’s successor has to recognize that and treat Judge in the same manner.
It should be one of Cashman’s standing orders, regardless of who gets the job.
As far as Judge is concerned, hands off!
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino