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Time to roll the dice on Hicks

When the Minnesota Twins chose Aaron Hicks with the 14th overall pick in the 2008 MLB Amateur draft, the High Schooler was labeled as a (dreaded) “five-tool player”. Hicks could hit for average, hit for power, steal bases, provide Gold Glove defense and he possessed a great throwing arm. That’s a lot of hype to live up to, especially when you’re 18-years old. Now, nine years later, it would appear Hicks has finally found his swing. The Yankees should ride his hot streak for as long as they can. Hicks’ time has come.

Struggles in the Twin-Cities

Just because you are selected in the first round of any sport’s draft, there is no guarantee you are going to be a star or even a bench player when you reach the top level of your sport. The 27-year old Hicks is well aware of it. By 2012, he had made his way up to Double-A New Britain and opened many eyes in the process. That season he had 13 home runs, 21 doubles, 11 triples, 79 walks and 32 stolen bases.

The next Spring, the Twins named Hicks, who had no Triple-A experience, as their starting center fielder. The result was not a pretty one. Hicks hit just .192, with 84 strikeouts in 281 at-bats. After 81 games of Major League experience, Hicks was sent down to Triple-A Rochester for the remainder of the season.

Hicks spent 69 games with the Twins in 2014, but the results weren’t any better, and in some cases were worse than the year before. The switch-hitter produced a mere nine extra-base hits in 186 at-bats. And, the high number of strikeouts (56) continued to plague him. But, still considered a kid at 25-years old, Hicks appeared to finally turn a corner in 2015.

He hit 11 home runs for Minny in 352 at-bats and added 11 doubles and three triples. He also stole 13 bases in 16 attempts and slightly reduced his strikeouts. So, with Hicks having built up some value, the Twins decided to move their former first round pick and sent him to the Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy.

Hicks looked to build off his previous season but flopped in his first year in New York. He hit just .217 and slugged .336. He was thrown out on four of seven stolen base attempts and his strikeout numbers rose again. Hicks’ chances of being more than a fourth outfielder were getting less and less likely.

Help!

2017 has brought a lot of changes to the Yankees and one of the most pleasant surprises among them has been the development of Hicks’ bat. Some of the credit for Hicks’ development has to go to former Yankees outfielder Chris Young.

Young, who was also once a highly touted prospect, broke out of the gate with 32 HR, 68 RBI and 28 stolen bases as Diamondbacks’ rookie in 2007.  But, though he maintained his power over the next four seasons, his overall offensive game began to slide. He eventually became a part-time player but was released by the Mets on August 15, 2014. 12 days later, the Yankees signed him to face left-handers and he excelled for the rest of the season and all of 2015.

Young had turned his own game around, so he was a great resource for Hicks to talk to about his own struggles.

“I talked a lot to actually Chris Young,” Hicks said. “I was like, how do you do it? He had success when he was here and I’ve got to figure out how to be successful.”

“He (Young) was saying, you can’t — like I was saying to you before, you can’t do the same routine you do when you’re a starter,” Hicks said. “When you’re a starter, you’re more relaxed. You don’t have to worry about things the way a guy that doesn’t play everyday does.”

Paying off

Both the advice and the preparation have paid off dividends for Hicks and the Yankees this season. Through this past Tuesday night’s game, Hicks has a 1.008 OPS in 99 at-bats. He’s batting .293, with a .432 OPS (thanks to 24 walks…compared to 21 strikeouts), and his eight home runs and four doubles have translated to a .576 OPS. He’s also been part of the Yankees’ more aggressive base running strategy this season, with six steals in eight attempts.

Defensively, Hicks has the versatility to play all three outfield positions. He’s also been solid from both sides of the plate so manager Joe Girardi can comfortably pencil him into the lineup no matter who is on the mound. Right now, he’s as good as he’s ever been since he became a professional player.

Losing Playing Time

Of course, when someone gains more playing time, someone (or “someones”) are going to lose playing time. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury would be the two most players most affected by an increase in playing time for Hicks. Chris Carter and Greg Bird, when he returns, could also lose time (the return of Tyler Austin, of course, could impact everything as well) if Hicks stays hot.

The Yankees made no secret of their attempts to move Brett Gardner this past offseason, though they were unable to find a suitable trade partner. He has one guaranteed year on his contract with a $12.5MM option/$2MM buyout for 2019. It’s hard to imagine, at this point, that the Yankees would pick up that option.  At the moment, the Yankees aren’t concerned, especially while

Gardner is red hot in May.

After a miserable April, in which he hit .205/.318/.329, Gardy has bounced back with 7 HR, 15 RBI, and a 1.155 OPS from May 1st through the 22nd. He’s been especially red hot at Yankee Stadium, where he has posted a 1.028 OPS in 18 games and hit six of his nine home runs. Of the 26 hits he has collected in May, 15 of them have gone for extra-bases. That might help to explain why Gardner has not attempted a stolen base for the month after going 5-5 in April.

But, Gardner’s history could be a decision-maker. He has been on a downward spiral for the last three seasons, especially in the second halves. After a .279/.353/.424 split in the first half of the 2014 season, Gardner took a nosedive with a .218/.246/.418 split in the 57 games he played in the second half.

2015 saw an even bigger dip. After an .861 OPS in the first half of the 2015 season, Gardner put up a forgettable .206/.300/292 split over the final 74 games. Last year, he struggled throughout the season, with nearly identical first (.709) and second (.719) half OPS numbers.

Though they couldn’t move him in the offseason, Gardner would be easier to deal than Ellsbury, should the Yankees decide to do so at the trade deadline. Ellsbury, who had to leave Wednesday night’s game after he smashed into the wall in center field, is only in the fourth year of an awful seven-year deal that guarantees him $153MM. The Yankees were short on talent on the Major League roster and in the farm system when they signed Ellsbury prior to the 2014 season. Both the number of years and the amount of money in the contract have been a detriment to rebuilding and re-tooling the team quickly.

At the time, GM Brian Cashman obviously pictured a one-two punch of speed and stolen bases by combining Gardner and Ellsbury at the top of the lineup. But, between injuries and slumps, it hasn’t worked out the way Cashman envisioned it.

Since stealing 39 bases in 2014, Ellsbury has averaged only 20.5 over the last two seasons.  He’s also been an extremely streaky hitter with the down times seemingly longer than the good times. The case for playing time for Ellsbury this season has not been helped by his struggles in his home ballpark. The center fielder has a .617 OPS at Yankee Stadium, compared to .921 on the road. And, the last two seasons, Ellsbury’s batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS were all subpar.

Right now, the Yankees are a better team with Hicks in the lineup every day and either Gardner or Ellsbury, both of whom will be 34-years old later in the season, on the bench (whichever one isn’t swinging the bat well at the time).

A True Believer

Girardi has also been impressed by what he has seen in Hicks.

“I think he understands how to handle his role,” the manager said. “It’s not always easy for kids that are used to playing every day not to play every day. I think he figured out last year, this is what I’ve got to do to be prepared. Similar to (backup catcher) Austin Romine. When you don’t have everyday at-bats, sometimes it’s not as easy. He kind of found a niche, found a way to be able to play when he was called upon and he matured.”

Girardi also knows what he, potentially, has on his hands with Hicks. That’s why he’s made sure to include him in the lineup more often this year. With a bevy of young outfielders like Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler waiting for their shot in the minor leagues, now is the time for Hicks to establish himself as someone deserving of regular playing time. And, now is the time for Girardi to give him that shot.

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