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What to do about Aaron Hicks and center field

With Aaron Hicks returning from his second season-ending injury in three years, the New York Yankees decided not to bring back Brett Gardner for center field depth. This was probably the right decision. Gardy gave the club fourteen outstanding seasons, but there was no punch remaining in his bat by the end of last year.

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Hicks was excellent for the team, albeit with limited availability, from 2017 to 2020. His 123 wRC+ was sixth-best among MLB center fielders during that stretch (minimum 1,000 PA). He was rewarded with a seven-year extension that began in 2019, but back and arm injuries cut that season short. They also would have significantly delayed his 2020 campaign had the season not been shortened by the pandemic. Then in 2021, a wrist tear limited him to only 32 games.

This offseason, the Yankees decided not to bolster their outfield. Instead, they rolled the dice on their 32-year-old center fielder who has only one season in his entire career with more than 400 PA. So far, that gamble has come up snake eyes.

The Aaron Hicks Dilemma

To paraphrase Harvey Dent, you either die a hero or live long enough to become Brett Gardner. Hicks may be six years younger, but his inability to make even moderately hard contact is weighing down the Yankees. Through 145 plate appearances, he has only two extra-base hits and a .200/.326/.233 slash line. That .233 SLG is the second-worst in MLB among hitters with at least 100 PA. If not for his surprisingly good 15.2% walk rate, he might possibly be the very worst hitter in the league so far this season.

His Statcast metrics don’t look promising. He ranks in the 12th percentile in hard-hit rate and the second percentile in barrel rate. Of the 27 balls he has hit with a >95 mph exit velocity, 17 have had a launch angle below nine degrees (the Statcast definition of a ground ball). He has only hit the ball 300 feet or more ten times all year. Statcast doesn’t like his defense much either, giving him a 13th percentile ranking in Outs Above Average and 31st percentile outfielder jump. This unfortunately matches the eye test as well.

Hicks is signed through 2025. On top of that, hitters who suffer wrist injuries tend to take a long time to fully recover their strength (remember Mark Teixeira). Cutting him isn’t an option. Their only two choices, for the time being, are to keep playing him or put him on the Injured List. The team must carry on though, so they need to brainstorm center-field contingency plans.

Finding a Center Fielder

Excluding Hicks, the Yankees have three internal center-field options, but only one of them is really viable. Aaron Judge isn’t spectacular in the middle of the outfield, but he’s at least serviceable. Of course, he’s one of the best defensive right-fielders in the game, so playing him out of position has a cost. The only other options on the 40-man roster are Estevan Florial, who doesn’t look capable of catching up to major-league velocity, and Tim Locastro, who is presently injured and doesn’t have much more pop than Hicks.

The trade market won’t take shape for another few weeks, but it appears to be bleak for center fielders. Excluding Judge, there is seven qualified CF with a wRC+ above 120. The rest are all under 100, making a crystal clear distinction between haves and have-nots at the position. However, almost all of the good-hitting CF play for contending teams:

  1. Mike Trout, LAA, 204 wRC+
  2. Aaron Judge, NYY, 198 wRC+
  3. Mike Yastrzemski, SFG 154 wRC+
  4. Brandon Nimmo, NYM, 145 wRC+
  5. George Springer, TOR, 145 wRC+
  6. Daulton Varsho, ARI, 126 wRC+
  7. Luis Robert, CHW, 122 wRC+
  8. Julio Rodríguez, SEA, 120 wRC+

Trout, Nimmo, Springer, Robert, and Rodríguez are absolutely immovable. There might be a scenario in which the Giants completely collapse and consider offers for Yastremski, but they’re currently 25-21 and coming off an MLB-best 107 win season, so it’s highly unlikely. Besides, he’s their best player and won’t reach free agency until 2026.

For multiple reasons, Varsho is the most interesting name on this list. He splits his time almost evenly between catcher and center field, making him one of baseball’s most unique players. As a 25-year-old left-handed hitter who is coming into his own at the plate, he would be an ideal fit for the Yankees, but the same could be said about nearly every other club in MLB. The 23-26 Diamondbacks aren’t quite as terrible as they have been in recent seasons. With their young star under club control through 2027, they won’t be enthusiastic about trading him.

The more likely CF on the trade block include Cleveland’s Myles Straw (.236/.335/.304) and Colorado’s Randal Grichuk (.279/.320/.414). Straw’s skill set is nearly identical to Locastro’s and Grichuk’s Statcast profile is even bleaker than Hicks’, both offensively and defensively. Neither player profiles as an everyday lineup fixture for a contending team.

By neglecting to acquire a legitimate center fielder this offseason, the Yankees put themselves in a difficult position. There most likely isn’t a big trade chip available as the trade deadline nears, and even if there was, the club remains reticent to deal top prospects. Hoping Hicks regains the ability to drive the ball and magically recaptures the outfield range of his youth is just about all they can do.