The Yankees went into this past season with the same expected lineup they went into the previous season with. Despite Gleyber Torres’ obvious issues defensively at shortstop and despite Aaron Hicks’ inability to play a full season in his career, the Yankees figured Torres would get better at the most important position in the infield and that Hicks would be available every day to play the most important in the outfield. The Yankees gave up on Torres as a shortstop in the final weeks of the regular season, admitting multiple times this offseason there would be a new Yankees shortstop in 2022. The wise move would be to do the same with Hicks and have a new Yankees center field next season as well.
“Obviously looking at shortstop,” Brian Cashman said at last week’s General Manager Meetings. “Maybe center field.”
I’m glad Cashman is at least publicly recognizing the team has a serious problem in center, even if his use of the word “maybe” is petrifying because this isn’t a “maybe” situation.
Back in February 2019 when Hicks was inexplicably given a seven-year, $70 million extension through 2025 (with an option for an eighth year!), the common response was something like, “It’s only $10 million per year and the Yankees can eventually walk away from it.” Sure, if Hicks played his age 29 (2019), age 30 (2020) and age 31 (2021) seasons the way he played in his age 28 season (2018) when he hit a career-high 27 home runs and played in a career- high 137 games then yeah, the contract would be a bargain and the final years of it could be walked away from and wouldn’t serve as an albatross to the team’s payroll. But Hicks has only played in 38 percent (145 of 384) of the Yankees’ games since signing the extension and that seemingly low average annual salary of $10 million suddenly feels like $100 million with the way the Yankees have operated under Hal Steinbrenner. Add in the Yankees’ inability to develop their own starting pitching or middle infield, needing to pay a premium through free agency to fill those holes, and Hicks’ contract has become a problem.
Giving Hicks that extension was regrettable in the moment, considering he spent nearly his entire 20s on the injured list and thinking he would somehow grow healthier and remain healthy on the other side of 30 was more than wishful thinking, it was plain idiotic. But doubling down the last two years in believing he could be the player he was in one of his nine career seasons was even more regrettable. It will once again be an extremely regrettable decision if the Yankees go into 2022 with the idea Hicks will be their everyday center fielder.
Hicks’ inability to stay healthy creates two issues for the Yankees in that it means Hicks isn’t playing and it means Brett Gardner is. I will never not believe Gardner isn’t going to be a Yankee in 2022, or any season. Even if the entire organization stated he wouldn’t be returning and even if Gardner announced his retirement, swearing to never play for the Yankees again, I still wouldn’t believe it. As long as Gardner wants to play baseball, the Yankees will let him play for them.
It’s very likely the Yankees’ 2022 Opening Day outfield will be Hicks in center, Aaron Judge in right, Joey Gallo in left (with Giancarlo Stanton serving as the designated hitter) and Gardner on the bench as the fourth outfielder. When Hicks gets inevitably injured, Gardner will become the team’s everyday center fielder. It’s the same scenario that has played out for the last three years. An outfielder (usually Hicks) gets hurt and Gardner becomes an everyday player.
If Gardner is on the team, he’s going to play. He will never be a true fourth outfielder. Beginning in 2018, he was supposed to be the team’s fourth outfielder. Since then he has played in 470 of 546 regular-season games (or 86 percent). On top of that, he played in all five of the team’s 2018 postseason games, all nine of the team’s 2019 postseason games (batting third in four of them!), in six of the team’s seven 2020 postseason games and somehow batted sixth in the team’s wild-card loss in 2021. Gardner has played in 21 of the Yankees’ 22 postseason games since becoming the team’s fourth outfielder.
If Hicks is the 2022 Yankees’ starting center fielder, the Yankees are going to need someone who can be the team’s actual starting fielder when Hicks goes on the injured list. Someone not named Brett Gardner. Again, the most games Hicks has ever played in a season was 137 in the season before he signed the extension, which means he still missed 25 games, or nearly a month of the 2018 season. Again that was in 2018. Next year it will be four years since he accomplished that “feat.”
Hicks was also 28 when he played in “that many” games. He will be 32 for the 2022 season, and since the 2018 regular season, he missed part of the 2018 postseason with a hamstring issue, missed the first six weeks of 2019 with a back injury suffered during a 35-minute bus ride in spring training, missed the last two months of 2019 with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, would have missed the first half of the 2020 season if it began on time recovering from that Tommy John surgery and then was out for the last 126 games of 2021 (127 if you count the team’s one postseason game) after needing season-ending wrist surgery. So since Hicks’ personal-best 137 games played in 2018, he has suffered a debilitating back injury, had his throwing arm surgically repaired and had his left wrist surgically repaired. For a guy who spent his prime and his career on the right side of 30 on the injured list as well as his first two years in his 30s, I don’t know how anyone could expect him to age well.
Hicks wants to play winter ball this winter since he has barely played baseball over the last three years, though it hasn’t been approved by the Yankees yet. According to Boone, Hicks would probably bat third for the Yankees if they had a game tomorrow.
“He sent me some video of him in the cage the other day swinging and he feels great,” Boone said of Hicks. “I think he looks great.”
Well, if Boone thinks Hicks “looks great” then who am I to argue? Then again, Boone named Hicks his 3-hitter long before spring training ended last season and then when Hicks went 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts in the season-opening series and Joel Sherman asked Boone about moving Hicks down in the lineup, Boone literally laughed off Sherman’s suggestion and responded, “He will be fine.” Eight games later, Hicks was batting sixth, and four games after that, he was hitting seventh before eventually being lost for the season after playing in only 32 games. So yeah, he wasn’t fine and hasn’t been fine. But you do have to take any Yankees player evaluation from Boone with a grain of salt (OK, the whole salt shaker) since he did just spend the entire spring, summer and one fall night defending his team. And it was Boone who said “medicine” would fix Hicks’ wrist back in May when asked if Hicks would need surgery.
“I think it could go either way, really,” Boone said. “In these cases it seems like a lot of times, the medicine works and knocks it out.”
Back in March 2013, Mark Teixeira suffered a similar wrist injury and played in only 15 games that season, batting .151/.270/.340, which is in line with Hicks’ .194/.294/.333 line from his 32 games in 2021. Like Hicks, Teixeira was a switch hitter.
The following season (2014), Teixeira was still feeling the effects of his surgically-repaired wrist and hit an abysmal .216/.313/.398 over 123 games (which is about the amount of games you could only dream of Hicks playing in). It wasn’t until 2015 when Teixeira began to hit like his old self (.255/.357/.548). If Hicks were to have the same return-from-injury woes getting his swing back that Teixeira had, then that means we can expect a very crappy version of Hicks in 2022 and hopefully get him back to being somewhat above average in 2023. (Teixeira was also a former All-Star and MVP finalist and Hicks has a .729 career OPS.
Hicks has now played in 493 of a possible 870 regular-season games as a Yankee (or 57 percent over six years). To put that ridiculously low amount of games played in perspective, Jacoby Ellsbury played in 520 games in his six years with the Yankees and that includes playing zero games in both 2018 and 2019. Hicks has been as healthy as Ellsbury.
The same way Hicks’ inability to stay healthy creates two issues for the Yankees in that he isn’t playing and Gardner is, not building the roster with him as the team’s center fielder for six months solves two issues: it removes Gardner from the equation and essentially makes Hicks the team’s fourth outfielder. Hicks isn’t going anywhere with four years left on his contract, and after wrongfully believing in him to be an everyday option for the Yankees the last three seasons, the same mistake can’t be made for a fourth straight season.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!