Much of the coverage of the New York Yankees leading into spring training has focused on the age and injury concerns that plague many of their key players. Bringing in Starlin Castro gives the team a second member of their starting lineup under 30 (along with Didi Gregorius), but they are still likely to lead the league in average position player age for the fifth year running.
Trading 2015 backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for former first-rounder Aaron Hicks was another important piece of the team’s plan to inject some youth and athleticism into the lineup. Murphy performed admirably in limited time, but with Gary Sanchez breaking out in the upper minors last season, he was expendable. Hicks initially looked like a candidate for a starting job in 2016 with trade rumors swirling around Brett Gardner much of the winter. With those talks having cooled off, Hicks will inherit the fourth outfielder/platoon role ably filled last season by Chris Young. Young played in 140 games and accumulated 356 plate appearances last season despite all three starters playing close to full seasons. Even if the incumbent outfielders are healthy, which is no sure thing, Hicks should see plenty of playing time.
With players of advanced age, fatigue is going to be an issue. It was no coincidence that the Yankees offense seemed to fade down the stretch. The team’s wRC+ dropped 21 points from the first half to the second (111 wRC+ in their first 1257 plate appearances, and 90 wRC+ in the final 1026 PA). They were particularly woeful in September with a 80 wRC+. For context, that month the team was only slightly better offensively than Stephen Drew was on the season.
In his end of season press conference, Joe Girardi did not dismiss the idea that the team was tired, acknowledging that “everyone during the season is going to get physically worn down.” While he noted that many of those who struggled were ostensibly in their prime years, he did mention the presence of older players like Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran on the roster, implying that they may require more rest. When asked if he and his staff will take a different approach next year, Girardi said, “It’s something I’ll think long and hard about this winter.”
With even their prime-aged stars such Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann struggling to maintain their production over a full season, Girardi’s ability to rest his starters and avoid another second-half collapse will be crucial to New York’s chances of contention. That means a deep and effective bench is a necessity.
Sanchez is the frontrunner for the backup catcher job. Given that New York’s two likely catchers bat from opposite sides, a loose platoon should allow them both ample playing time while giving McCann, MLB’s most durable backstop over the last decade, a breather. July acquisition Dustin Ackley will be the primary backup at first and second base, as well as providing an additional option in the outfield. Brian Cashman has alluded to the fact that he may use a bench spot to rotate in fresh players from Triple-A depending on team’s needs. Rob Refsnyder, Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, and the team’s army of left-handed hitting outfielders in Triple-A could all see some time in that role.
Perhaps the most important player on the Yankees’ bench in 2016, however, will be Aaron Hicks.
Hicks will be the primary backup not only for all three starting outfielders, but indirectly for 40-year-old designated hitter Rodriguez. While all four of those players are expected to play essential roles on the 2016 club, they are also the primary question marks in the lineup going into next year. Ellsbury hit the disabled list last year with a right knee sprain and was one of the league’s worst offensive performers even after returning almost two months later. At 32, with a long history of nagging ailments, he has a lot to prove.
Hitting coach Alan Cockrell let slip after the season that Gardner was also playing through an injury in the second half. His fading down the stretch has become an annual occurrence, as his all-out style of play leads to a snowball effect of bumps and bruises that take their toll by the end of the year.
In their age-39 and age-40 seasons, respectively, Beltran and A-Rod can’t reasonably be expected to take the field more than 100-120 times and maintain their effectiveness for the postseason. The presence of Hicks will allow Beltran to have plenty of time to rest his legs at DH without too much of a drop-off in offense.
As fantastic as Chris Young was for the Yankees in 2015, he was a platoon bat playing well above his head. Hicks, on the other hand, looks ready to replicate the production of either Ellsbury or Gardner in an everyday role without much of a drop-off. Take a look at the Steamer600 projections for all three players for next year, which assume that they all receive equal playing time.
Ellsbury: .264/.323/.396 (96 wRC+ and 2.3 WAR)
Gardner: .256/.331/.395 (100 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR)
Hicks: .250/.326/.394 (97 wRC+ and 1.9 WAR)
Steamer sees them as almost identical players, which theoretically means that Girardi can be even more liberal with their days off without affecting the product on the field. Hicks compares even more favorably to Beltran’s projected line:
Beltran: .263/.322/.435 (105 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR)
Beltran has the edge with the bat, but with an expected 16.4 defensive runs created below average, you could make the case that Hicks should be installed as the everyday right fielder right out of the gate. Since we all know that’s not happening, Yankees’ fans can enjoy once again having among the league’s best fourth outfielders.
The best part is, there is potential for much more than that. Hicks was a Baseball America Top 100 prospect four times from 2008-2012, peaking at number 19. BA consistently named him the best athlete, the best outfield defender, the best outfield arm, and the player with the best strike-zone discipline in the Twins organization during that span. I’ve read comps to Adam Jones and Carlos Gomez, both speedy outfielders who took a while to develop superstar power.
Hicks’ two biggest obstacles to unlocking his 20-20 potential are his significant platoon split and struggles against breaking balls. He made major strides with both in 2015, despite not having yet played in a full season at the big-league level. His 80 wRC+ against right-handed pitching in 2015 was unimpressive until you compare it to his 54 wRC+ career mark. He has cut down on the strikeouts in each season he’s played (26.8 percent to 24.9 percent to 16.9 percent).
There are many reasons to be excited about one of the Yankees’ quieter offseason acquisitions. Aroldis Chapman and Starlin Castro may be the big names, but the new Yankee who may have the biggest impact on the 2016 club and beyond may be Hicks.