CINCINNATI -- The New York Yankees have certainly had a long list of next big things: Remember when Joba Chamberlain graced the cover of ESPN The Magazine? Remember when Jesus Montero was the best hitting prospect in the minors, a can't-miss slugger with bat control? Remember Eric Duncan or Phil Hughes or Manny Banuelos or Jose Tabata? They've all had varying degrees of success, but none became The Guy in the Bronx.
Enter Aaron Judge.
One thing for sure: He's a big dude. And maybe the next big thing. The 6-foot-7 outfielder keeps rising on the prospect charts and not just because he's a product of the Yankee hype machine. He ranked No. 23 on Keith Law's preseason top 100 prospects list and his first-half performance has only reinforced the notion that he's one of the game's best prospects. With that comes the anticipation among Yankees fans.
The 32nd overall pick in 2013 out of Fresno State, Judge's pro debut was delayed until 2014 by a quad injury, but he quickly proved to be a more advanced bat than anticipated, hitting .308/.419/.486 between two levels of Class A. He started 2015 at Double-A and hit .284/.353/.477 before a promotion to Triple-A, where he's hit .268 with one home run in 19 games.
"It's been a tough challenge," Judge said prior to Sunday's Futures Game, where he went 1-for-4 with an infield single and two strikeouts. "You're facing a lot of guys who have been up and down in the majors a little bit, who know how to pitch, especially on 2-0, 3-1, so waiting back to get your pitch is the hardest thing, the biggest adjustment so far."
Judge loves that cat-and-mouse aspect of baseball. "Ever since I was a little kid, that intrigued me," he said. "The game within the game was the biggest thing. A lot of people don't see the little things we do within a game." So while he eventually played football starting as a sophomore in high school in Linden, California -- a small town of less than 2,000 located about an hour south of Sacramento in the San Joaquin Valley -- and played basketball "just for fun," baseball was always his first love.
"In baseball, you have to remain calm, cool and collected. In football, you can let out a little anger sometimes. It was a fun game and I liked it, but I knew in my heart I was going to play baseball."
He was a 31st-round pick by the A's out of high school, with Fresno State, San Jose State and Hawaii showing the most interest in him as a baseball player. He chose Fresno, maybe a foregone conclusion since both of his parents went there.
Judge is more pure hitter than pure power, a guy who focuses on trying to hit the ball to right-center. His power continues to improve, however. At Fresno, he went from two home runs as a freshman to four to 12 as a junior. He drew 89 walks last season in the minors and has drawn 36 so far this year in 82 games. He stands well off the plate, but explains that his natural mindset is to think right-center. "If I can reach the outside fastball, I can react to everything inside," he says.
The common belief in baseball is that you have to pitch big guys inside. Don't let them get their arms extended. Think how pitchers attack Giancarlo Stanton, a guy physically similar in size to Judge (and, inevitably and unfairly, a player he'll be compared to). Stanton is one of the players Judge has spent time studying, along with Matt Holliday and Alex Rodriguez, who is a taller hitter like himself.
In spring training, he was able to pick Rodriguez's brain a little bit. "He reinforced how they'll try to pitch us in, but it's hard to find a guy who can throw three straight fastballs on the inside corner. Try not to worry about that and just stick to your approach."
Part of being a Yankees prospect means dealing with the hype. Judge ignores it, saying he just plays the game. He loves the chess match, loves watching video. If he DHs in a game, he says he might even go check out his previous at-bat between innings.
With an aging Carlos Beltran and stopgap veterans Chris Young and Garrett Jones currently sharing right field, Judge should make the leap to the majors in 2016. His name will be thrown around in trade rumors all month, but the Yankees are unlikely to deal him. At some point they need to infuse some youth in the lineup.
When he does get the call, that will leave one important decision: What uniform number to wear? At the Futures Game, he wore No. 99, the number he also wears at Scranton. He wore No. 29 in college but kept No. 99 after the Yankees gave it to him in spring training. Is it a keeper? "It might be," he laughed. "Especially with the Yankees, where they have so many retired numbers. There aren't many left."