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How should the Yankees handle Aaron Judge?

Top prospect Aaron Judge had a rough major league debut, to say the least, leaving his status for 2017 up in the air.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Although the concept of naming a single X-Factor for any team may not be completely logical—saying one player’s success or failure can swing a whole roster’s season may be overstating the effect of the individual—it’s not wrong to suggest Aaron Judge is one of the Yankees’ ‘X-Factors’ over the next several seasons. His development, either turning into the perennial 30 home run threat or a high swing-and-miss bust (or a combination of the two), should play a large role in the Yankees’ fortunes in the short and long-term.

Judge has been one of New York’s top-10 prospects since being drafted in 2013, and peaked last season as their top prospect (via Baseball Prospectus). His stock continued to rise by midseason of 2016, with a strong performance in his second look at Triple-A (a .270/.366/.489 batting line and 19 home runs in 93 games) resulting in a call up to the big leagues at 24-years-old.

Unfortunately, Judge’s huge strike zone was easily exploited by big league pitchers and after a month of plate appearances, the 6’7” behemoth had accrued just 15 hits and 42 strikeouts—good for a .179 batting average and 44.2 percent strikeout rate. While it wasn’t shocking to see the right fielder struggle some in his major-league debut, the extent of his strikeouts and lack of contact were alarming and leave evaluators split on what his future will be in the Bronx.

The most conservative approach would be to send Judge down to Triple-A next season, though this would likely only result from a very poor spring training. Otherwise, demoting him doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Judge mashed at the level last season, and he’d be seeing Triple-A pitching for a third straight year if he doesn’t make the Yankees on Opening Day. As a 25-year-old with past success at the level, sending Judge down would do little more than restore his confidence.

Barring a disaster in March, though, the smarter (and more likely) decision would be to put Judge on the team’s Opening Day 25-man roster. The role he’ll play, though, is the larger question mark. The best move for the team’s success might be to platoon Judge with Aaron Hicks, giving Hicks—a switch hitter who has been better against southpaws over his career—most of the at bats against lefties and Judge, who struggled mightily against opposite-handed pitchers last season, exclusive looks against right handed arms.

While this would ideally result in maximum production out of right field while giving both Hicks and Judge playing time, it probably wouldn’t be in Judge’s (or Hicks’) best interest to use a platoon. Neither player has a strong platoon preference, and it could harm the two outfielders’ development. Having Judge only see righties in the majors next season isn’t the best way to raise a future everyday player, and limiting Hicks to southpaws would, well, limit his overall utility. Keeping both players’ future interests in mind would be wise, so a (strict) platoon is probably out of the question.

The Yankees should probably place their faith in Judge and give him full-time reps in right field to start next season. While serious early struggles could derail that plan, Judge may just need some time to adjust to a new level (he used a month or so to figure out Triple-A pitching as well) before settling in as a stalwart in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup. This would limit Hicks’ at bats, though he could certainly receive chances at all three outfield positions, or maybe even more if Brett Gardner is traded this offseason.

Maybe a combination of these scenarios play out next season, or a different situation arises entirely. While it’s not a great idea to put too much weight on spring training, Judge’s performance in March will certainly affect his starting place to kick off next season, and perhaps, as a result, his future with the organization.