There’s a lot to like about the changes the Yankees made from last season to this one.
One change, though, hasn’t paid off nearly as well as they hoped. In fact, it really hasn’t paid off at all. In going from Brett Gardner as the primary center fielder to Aaron Hicks, the team replaced one problem with a younger, less beloved problem.
Hicks returns to his old stomping grounds in Minnesota — where the Yankees begin a three-game series on Tuesday — with a .213/.337/.243 slash line. Statcast has him as the worst defensive center fielder in the American League, and among players who have made at least 150 plate appearances, Hicks’ grand total of two extra base hits is the fewest in the league.
The warts are visible and protruding. Presumably healthy again, Hicks is a far cry from the player he was in 2018. That year, a 28-year-old Hicks slammed 27 home runs and walked in over 15% of his trips to the plate. His 4.2 Wins Above Replacement made him the second-best position player on the team, behind only Aaron Judge. That earned him the now widely-mocked seven-year, $70 million contract that runs through 2026.
At his current rate of production, it would be unfathomable for Hicks to still be the everyday center fielder in 2026. Even when the contract was signed, it was hard to envision Hicks as the center fielder of the future. Hicks spent time on the injured list in both 2017 and 2018, went there again after getting paid in 2019, then underwent wrist surgery at the start of 2021 that limited him to just 32 games. There was an injury history when the deal was made, and it’s continued as Hicks ages.
The question now becomes what to do. The team is chained to Hicks financially, but he’s also become unplayable. He also does not have minor league options, and keeping him on the bench as a speed and defense guy doesn’t make sense given how hard both his speed and defense have declined.
Judge has already shifted right and started 20 games in center field this year. That defensive alignment typically comes with Giancarlo Stanton playing right field and Josh Donaldson, DJ LeMahieu and/or Gleyber Torres cycling through designated hitter. But with Matt Carpenter now in the fold, and immediately contributing, he has a rightful claim to DH on most days.
Aaron Boone will be hesitant, if not outright unwilling, to play Stanton in the field every single day. If one of Donaldson, LeMahieu or Torres could play corner outfield, take Hicks’ spot and permanently place Judge in center, the Yankees would have a solution. But they don’t, leaving a bunch of uncomfortable truths for a team that has been living in warm and snuggly confines all season.
Assuming Stanton will continue playing DH more often than right field — an even safer assumption after the ankle injury that briefly sent him to the injured list — the Yankees need someone who can both play the outfield and be better than Hicks. The latter part isn’t a huge bar to clear, as Hicks has the fourth-lowest slugging percentage of any hitter getting as many chances as him. For the Yankees, the issue is the lack of a logical replacement that’s separated themselves from the pack by now.
Estevan Florial would be the ideal heir apparent, but the team seems stubbornly opposed to giving him the starting job in the majors over Hicks. Florial has put together a nice season at Triple-A, slashing .270/.357/.419 with a double-digit walk rate. The 24-year-old also, to his detriment, strikes out entirely too much, especially against minor league pitching. The team will never know how he handles the big leagues, though, until they try. Seemingly every time Florial has been with the Yankees this season, it’s as the 27th man for a doubleheader, and he’s returned to the minors immediately afterward.
If the Yankees just flat out don’t believe that Florial is ready for Major League Baseball, they could stand to give Tim Locastro a shot. Also currently in the minors, Locastro at the very least has one elite tool in his bag. Locastro’s tornado legs give him speed that very few other players possess. That alone makes him an intriguing player, especially when the alternative is Hicks and his 81 wRC+.
Finally, there’s Miguel Andujar. A longtime fringe member of the Yankees’ roster, Andujar recently requested a trade because he’s never gotten the playing time he feels he deserves. With the third baseman learning how to navigate left field (and doing so without any major hiccups), he deserves to be in the starting lineup more than Hicks does. But if the Yankees weren’t going to play Andujar over Hicks or Joey Gallo — who has also been terrible this year — they likely never will.
It’s a curious situation for sure, and there’s likely a level of embarrassment that would come from ditching Hicks and Gallo, as both were once touted as big pieces of the team’s championship pursuit. But right now, it’s clear as day that Judge should be manning center field, even if the concerns about protecting his body grow larger when he’s moved away from a corner spot. While the Yankees have still beaten everything in sight despite Hicks getting generous playing time, any postseason game with him is a stain on the lineup card.
Before they reach that point, the Yankees need a solution. Whether it’s one of Florial, Locastro or Andujar, or whatever trade piece they can get in return for Andujar, it’s madness to keep trotting Hicks out there and praying for a miracle. It’s one thing to win a division with a few rotten eggs in the carton, it’s entirely different to try and win the World Series. Several floundering teams would love to get something for their outfielders on expiring contracts. Arizona’s David Peralta, Pittsburgh’s Ben Gamel and Kansas City’s Andrew Benintendi are just a few of the impending free agents whose left-handed swings would play nicely in the Bronx and be tangible upgrades heading into the playoffs.
Whatever the Yankees decide to do, it can’t be Hicks, a man who has the same amount of double plays grounded into as he does extra base hits.