The Yankees are 27-12 and no one wants to hear a Yankees fan complain, but I’m not really complaining. I’m trying to improve the Yankees as the best team in baseball because the second-best team in baseball plays in their division, and the difference between going right to the ALDS or having to play another one-game playoff might actually come down to one game. (I don’t think it will. I think the Yankees will run away with the AL East, but the Yankees front office has to think it will be a close race when making decisions.) I don’t want the Yankees to play in the wild-card game for the third time in four years. I can’t keep going through one-game playoffs. I can’t.
Are the Yankees currently putting out the best possible lineup every day? The answer to that is an easy no, and it’s not only because Greg Bird isn’t playing first base yet. It’s because Aaron Hicks continues to bat sixth, serving as Gary Sanchez’s protection, and bat fifth when Sanchez has the day off. I don’t necessarily think Sanchez needs protection as the best pure hitter on the team, but even so, Hicks has no business batting sixth, let alone fifth. In reality, Hicks has no business being a starter on this team.
Hicks is hitting .213/.330/.382 through Sunday with three home runs and 13 RBIs. He hit his third home run of the season on Saturday against the A’s, but prior to that, he hadn’t hit a home run since April 13 at Detroit, when he hit both of his home runs this season in that one game. The RBI that came on that home run against A’s was his first RBI since April 28. The home run was his eighth extra-base hit of the season, and he has one multi-hit game since April 20.
Hicks hasn’t had a good season. But this isn’t a player where you can say “It’s early!” or “He’ll heat up!” or “Give him time and he will play to the back of his baseball card!” Hicks is playing to the back of his baseball card. He’s a career .230/.316/.373 hitter in 1,759 plate appearances. And it’s not like he’s a spring chicken. He’s 28, which is old in baseball years, and at some point the Yankees are going to have to admit this is who he is as a player. The only reason they haven’t admitted it yet is because of two things: 1. Hicks was a first-round pick and first-round picks seemingly get infinite chances to figure it out even if he was selected in the first round based on how he performed when he was in high school playing with metal bats, and 2. April 2, 2017 to June 25, 2017.
April 2, 2017 through June 25, 2017 was the worst thing that could have happened to the Yankees from a judging Hicks standpoint. In 242 plate appearances during that time, Hicks hit .290/.398/.515 with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs, playing at an All-Star level. Then Hicks went on the disabled list, and when he returned on Aug. 10 through the end of the season, he hit .218/.319/.396 in 119 plate appearances, essentially his career numbers.
Those 242 plate appearances gave Hicks the starting center field job in the playoffs, where he hit .196/.260/.304 in 50 plate appearances. (I didn’t have a problem with him starting in center field in the playoffs because the alternative was Jacoby Ellsbury). Those 242 plate appearances gave Hicks the starting center field job this season. (Again, I didn’t have a problem with him starting in center field in the playoffs because the alternative would have been Jacoby Ellsbury if weren’t hurt.) Those 242 plate appearances have led to Hicks batting sixth (16 times), fifth (5), first, (3) and third (1) this season, never hitting lower than sixth despite his actual production.
Prior to those 242 plate appearances, Hicks had 1,289 career plate appearance. In those 1,289 plate appearances, he hit .223/.299/.346. Since the end of those 242 plate appearances, Hicks has had another 282 plate appearances (including playoffs) and has hit .213/.312/.371. So for 1,571 of plate appearances in the majors, Hicks has been a first-round bust, but for a 242-plate appearance stretch, he played like an All-Star. In Maury fashion, the results are in, and Hicks IS NOT the player we watched during those 242 plate appearances.
Maybe the Yankees are OK with that. Maybe Brian Cashman is fine with a starting center fielder who has a great arm and has improved his defense and routes to balls and doesn’t care that over 162 games, he averages a .230/.316/.373 line with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs. In a lineup that has Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius and Bird coming back, maybe Cashman feels he doesn’t need another offensive presence in center field and can due with Hicks being an average player. The problem is there is an offensive presence waiting in Triple-A.
Clint Frazier, a former first-round pick himself, is hitting .333/.404/.643 with seven extra-base hits in 47 plate appearances in Triple-A. He has started to play games in center field to go along with his usual spot in left field, and while it always helps to have players that can play multiple positions, he’s doing so now for two potential reasons: 1. A lineup change is coming for the Yankees, and 2. The Yankees are increasing his value. No. 1 is unlikely, even though I wish it were the case. No. 2 is most likely the reason.
Gardner can play left and center, and if Yankee Stadium didn’t have such a big left field, he would likely always play center. Judge can play right and center. Stanton can play right and left, and Hicks can play anywhere. The Yankees wouldn’t need Frazier to play center, and if he were called up and used, I find it hard to believe they would ever actually use him in center unless there was an emergency. Frazier is playing center field in Triple-A to showcase his defensive range for the rest of the league for when the Yankees make a move this summer on a starting pitcher.
I wouldn’t trade Frazier. I mean I would for a true front-end starter that could pair with Luis Severino that would give the Yankees an actual 1-2 postseason punch and increase their chances at winning the division and getting through the ALDS to a seven-game series. But I wouldn’t trade him for an impending free agent whose no more trustworthy than CC Sabathia or Masahiro Tanaka. I wouldn’t want to trade him in a deal for a pitcher, who will need a personal catcher even if that personal catcher isn’t any good. I’m sure the Yankees don’t plan on trading him for anything other than the pitcher that I also want, but if injuries were to arise, and the market and demand were to change, who knows what might happen.
I also wouldn’t want the Yankees to trade Frazier and then be forced to watch his career develop from a far, while Hicks continues to be given countless chances to prove himself as a Major Leaguer. In a worst-case scenario, Frazier’s offense only ever becomes Hicks’: a .230/.316/.373 hitter. But that’s the absolute worst-case scenario and highly unlikely given what Frazier has done in the minors and what he did in his short stint with the Yankees last season.
Frazier deserves a chance to play in the majors for the Yankees right now. Hicks has had enough chances. He’s had five-plus seasons, 484 games and 1,759 plate appearances worth of chances to prove himself in the majors, and outside of a three-month stretch that represents 13.8 percent of his career playing time, he hasn’t proved himself.