NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Saturday, March 7, 2015, 12:30 PM
It’s hard to miss Aaron Judge’s 6-7, 275-pound frame around Yankee complex in Tampa.
TAMPA — The sound is startling.
On a sleepy Sunday morning at Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees are scattered around the complex, preparing for the exhibition season that begins only two days later.
Pitchers take fielding practice on Fields 3 and 4, while Alex Rodriguez headlines a group taking batting practice on the main field, drawing a big crowd of spectators, both in the stands and behind the cage.
Back on Field 2, the one tucked away on the right side of the development, four hitters take BP while a dozen or two onlookers watch from behind a chain-link fence.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner go through their routines, spraying balls to all fields. Ramon Flores, a Triple-A outfielder, works on his swing with the hopes of impressing the coaching staff.
Then Aaron Judge steps into the cage.
It’s his power and all-around game that keep eyes – including those of scout and former Bomber Eric Chavez (l.) – fixed on the 22-year-old prospect.
You can’t help but take notice of the sound. Ball meeting bat creates a loud noise that makes you wonder if you’ve mistakenly wandered onto a shooting range. Judge — a 6-7, 275-pound specimen that looks like he should be playing right defensive end rather than right field — rips one line drive after another, trying to perfect an approach that has seemingly put him on the fast track to stardom.
The second-to-last ball he hits clears the wall in left-center field with ease, a shot that catches his veteran teammates’ attention. The next ball is launched to straightaway center field, where it crashes into the top area of the black batter’s eye, a blast that might have landed on Dale Mabry Highway — or perhaps on the 50-yard-line of Raymond James Stadium across the street — if the big black screen hadn’t intervened.
“You just got that one,” Gardner jokes, almost at a loss for words for the power display he’s just witnessed.
Judge is the Yankees’ top hitting prospect, a towering package of power, athleticism and plate discipline. Mason Williams, a fellow outfield prospect, calls him “a created player” — as in the player he creates when he plays Madden 2015 on his Xbox.
A first-round draft pick selected 32nd overall in 2013, Judge hit .333/.428/.530 with nine home runs and 45 RBI in 65 games at Low-A Charleston last season, earning a midseason promotion to High-A Tampa.
The move didn’t slow him down. Judge hit .283/.411/.442 with eight homers and 33 RBI in 66 games, firmly establishing himself as a rising star in a system desperate for one.
“I think power in general is a scarcity, but especially righthanded power,” said Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ VP of amateur scouting. “It gives him a great value to us, but so does his makeup and a number of other things that go with him. He’s not just a guy that turns and launches; he’s a good runner, a good thrower and a graceful athlete with great plate discipline. I think that gets lost in his size.”
As Judge shot past the 6-foot mark in high school, the football schools began actively recruiting him. A wide receiver and defensive end, Judge received letters from Notre Dame, UCLA, Michigan State and Stanford among others.
“It was fun going up against little cornerbacks,” said Judge, who grew up in Linden, Calif., about 90 miles east of San Francisco. “I was 6-7 and they were about 5-8 standing across from me. It was pretty funny.”
Football was fun, but baseball was his passion. Judge was drafted in the 30th round of the 2010 draft by Oakland, but choosing to attend Fresno State rather than signing was an easy choice.
“I didn’t think I was ready — physically or mentally — to get into pro ball,” Judge said. “I knew that a couple years at Fresno would help that out. I was going to college the whole way.”
In his first season in the Yankee organization (over two levels) Aaron Judge put up some impressive numbers.
“He was raw,” Oppenheimer said.
After graduating high school at about 220 pounds, Judge started lifting weights, filling out his frame with another 30 or 40 pounds. He mashed his way through college, earning first-team All-Mountain West honors in all three seasons. Judge led the Bulldogs in home runs, doubles and RBI during his junior season, but it was his .461 on-base percentage that stood out to him.
“That’s what wins ballgames,” Judge said. “If you get on base, the guys behind you can drive you in.”
Following his sophomore season, Judge played in the Cape Cod League, a veritable training ground for potential draftees. There’s a day during the summer when all position players in the league are brought to Fenway Park for a workout, a session that stuck with Oppenheimer as he was preparing for the draft nearly a year later.
“I distinctly remember sitting there, watching this guy — finally — in a big-league park,” Oppenheimer said. “Cape fields are basically high school fields, so it’s really neat to see these guys at Fenway and gauge it. He was one of the few guys that was rattling balls up in the lights. His tools were all there.”
The size and strength stand out — observers regularly draw comparisons to Dave Winfield and Giancarlo Stanton — but it’s what Judge does off the field that leads the Yankees to believe they may have found a special player.
Judge, who the Yankees drafted with a first-round pick in 2013, is a top hitting prospect.
“From everything I’ve ever heard from the player development side, this is a leader of men,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “People gravitate to him in the weight room, on the field and in the clubhouse. He’s the guy that people turn to to show them the way.”
P.J. Pilittere, Judge’s hitting coach in Tampa last season, learned right away what type of teammate the youngster was.
“In his first game when he got promoted last year, he came up in a big spot and he didn’t get the job done,” Pilittere said. “I wanted to see how the kid responded to that. He came back to the dugout, put his helmet and bat away and immediately started cheering for the next guy at the plate. That told me all I needed to know about him.”
Pilittere played eight seasons in the Yankees’ minor-league system, attending big-league camp with the likes of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. He’s not ready to anoint Judge as a superstar just yet, but Pilittere believes his temperament is ideal for success.
“The good ones that play this game can control their emotions; it’s a special talent,” Pilittere said. “The fact that he can already do it is a promising sign of things to come. He’s a genuine kid that loves the game and wants to be better.”
The Yankees use a metric called exit velocity, which measures the speed at which a ball travels off a hitter’s bat. Assistant GM Billy Eppler said Judge’s number ranks in the 90th percentile of major-league hitters, evidence of the damage he can do with each swing.
“We like the total package,” Eppler said. “Power is what people like to talk about, especially with a guy of his size. Watching him take BP is fun; it’s like going to a long-drive contest.
“But watch him go get a ball in the gap, watch him throw, watch him do the other things. Everybody wants to see a bomb in the batter’s box, but we just want him to have a quality at-bat and win every pitch. He does a lot of things we like our hitters to do. He fits our offensive DNA.”
The Yankees haven’t drafted and developed an All-Star position player in pinstripes since Jeter. Judge could change that.
In big-league camp for the first time, Judge is doing everything he can to take advantage of the opportunity. He’s picked Carlos Beltran’s brain about what it takes to succeed in the majors and watched the way Mark Teixeira prepares each day. He knows he’s likely ticketed for Double-A Trenton to open the season, but Judge figures as long as he’s here, why not dream big?
“I just want to give them something to think about,” Judge said. “Try to soak up as much as I can, talk to everybody, learn as much as I can. Put on a show and make it tough for them to send me across the street.”
The Core Four is gone. Robinson Cano, once believed to be the man to take the baton from Jeter, now plays in Seattle. Could Judge be the next great homegrown Yankee?
“That’s everybody’s dream,” Judge said. “Even as a little kid, you want to grow up and be one of the legends, one of the greatest of all-time. One of my dreams is to be one of the next great ones, but I know I have to work hard every day to work toward that goal.
“This is where we all want to be. Getting a taste of it here, I want more. Now I have to go out there and get it.”