SAN DIEGO — Aaron Judge spent most of the season at the center of the baseball world, chasing Roger Maris’ American League home run record.
If anything could compete with that, we’re about to see it at the winter meetings, which began Sunday night, with Judge’s free agency setting the tone for the rest of the offseason.
When Judge won his first AL MVP award last month, attention had already shifted to his free-agency plans.
“I’m looking forward to getting the free-agent process moving,’’ Judge said at the time. “A lot of stuff doesn’t kick in until the winter meetings in December.”
The meetings got underway Sunday at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, with the focus on Judge, whose free agency was already the biggest story in the baseball world even before Jacob deGrom opted to bolt the Mets in favor of the Rangers and the five-year, $185 million contract they gave him.
The timing and amount of the deGrom signing caught some by surprise, but the destination — and the fact he was willing to leave the Mets — wasn’t.
It would be seen as a much bigger shock if Judge ended up exiting The Bronx, even for the Giants not far from his hometown of Linden, Calif.
The consensus heading into these meetings was that the Yankees — who are “believed to have $300 million-plus on the table” to Judge, according to The Post’s Jon Heyman, remain the favorites to retain him.
But Judge has already met with the Giants and has sounded open to offers from other teams since turning down the Yankees’ seven-year, $213.5 million deal on Opening Day.
Since taking that gamble, Judge set the American League record with 62 homers and won the MVP award.
Until Judge’s destination is determined, much of the rest of the Yankees’ offseason plans are on hold.
They signed Anthony Rizzo to a new contract last month after the first baseman drew serious interest from other teams, but until the Yankees know Judge’s future, they are unlikely to make too many other significant moves.
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has been outspoken about wanting to keep Judge in The Bronx and there is belief the Yankees would go to nine years, but if the Giants went to 10 years, there is an expectation Judge would end up in San Francisco.
“We know where we’re at,’’ Steinbrenner said of the team’s payroll last month in relation to its pursuit of Judge. “I can tell you, that’s not gonna stop us.”
Steinbrenner added he told Judge he wanted to keep him.
There remains confidence within the organization that the Yankees will keep Judge and that he doesn’t want to leave, something Steinbrenner hinted at earlier in the offseason.
“I do believe he wants to be a Yankee,’’ Steinbrenner said. “I think we’ve got a good thing going here.”
But there is the reality of the fact that as long as Judge is a free agent, he can end up spurning the Yankees.
Judge stood inside the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and referred to the Yankees in the past tense after their season-ending loss to the Astros in The Bronx.
“Getting the chance to wear pinstripes and play right field at Yankee Stadium, that’s an incredible honor that I definitely didn’t take for granted at any point,’’ Judge said after the Yankees were swept out of the ALCS by the Astros. “It was a special time. I just kick myself for not bringing home that championship.”
Perhaps we’ll find out soon if Judge has another chance to do it with the Yankees.