If you’ve been following the Yankees as much as I have over the past few years, one creeping observation, one many have pointed out, is the Yankees front office’s obsession with bad players.
You can go down the list: Eduardo Nunez held up a possible Cliff Lee deal and piled up plate appearances despite being consistently atrocious; Sergio Mitre somehow pitched over 100 innings from 2009 to 2010; Stephen Drew got a full season’s worth of at-bats despite being below replacement level; Dustin Ackley was hotly pursued by Brian Cashman since as early as 2014 before completely falling apart on arrival. I can go on, and I’ll end with one more: Aaron Hicks.
I suppose the former players become obsessions when a team is bad, and that makes sense; when you’re a mediocre crop, you can see through the kaleidoscope a decent player who can fill a hole. But when you have other options, easily better options, it makes less and less sense. That’s what leads us to Hicks.
When Cashman acquired Hicks for John Ryan Murphy a year ago, he described the trade as “a lot of talent for a lot of talent” and that Hicks’ “coming out party [was] last year  and [he] showed up as a viable, everyday Major League player.” Cashman also said that they felt “...strongly about him from an analytics and scouting standpoint.”
So they gave him that shot. While they thought he might be the 96 wRC+ hitter he was in 2015, the results were different: in 123 games, the largest sample in his career, he hit a horrid .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+), which is pretty unacceptable for a supposed viable major league player.
He’s a former top prospect, he has loud physical tools like a great arm, speed, and decent bat speed, but none of that is there (except the arm). He strikes out 20% of the time, with no power, and with less and less upside as eclipses 1300 major league plate appearances this year.
Now, enter Aaron Judge. Judge is a top prospect in his own right, with his own loud tools, and his own flaws. He has 80 raw power, poor contact abilities, and a decent arm in right field. He had a poor showing to start his career, though, hitting .179/.263/.345 (63 wRC+) in 95 plate appearances.
The competition for right field comes down to these two players, and it should be pretty simple, to be honest: Judge has performed very well in spring, and he has a level of upside that just isn’t present with Hicks; he’s been a major leaguer, and he hasn’t produced over four seasons.
When the farm was barren and the waiver wire was thin, the reliance on these types of players made some sense at least; there really wasn’t anyone other than a Drew or an Ackley to rely upon, so you rode them based on what the scouting and analytics told you.
But now you have a superior player; or, if not superior, he has the much better chance of being superior. And if the Yankees truly think this is a rebuilding year, a year in which they’re going to rely on Luis Severino as fourth starter, Johnny Wholestaff as fifth starter, Gary Sanchez at catcher (while trading Brian McCann), and Greg Bird off of a shoulder injury at first base, then why the hesitance to fully commit to Judge in right field?
The answer is because they still believe that their initial calculation was correct, that Hicks still has the underlying scouting grades and analytics to be successful. The issue is they’ve done that before, and all they did was repeatedly beat the dead horse that any Yankees fan knew was already dead.
I’m not saying Judge is going to better. I’m no scout, and I don’t have the analytics the Yankees front office has. But I do know from observing this team that they hold on to their cards way too long when they could have just folded. Hicks costs them nothing at this point, but toying with Judge costs more. At some point, you need to see what’s in the tank, and we know there’s only so much more tinkering that can be done. Judge needs major league reps. He was named the Opening Day right fielder, but Hicks will surely see playing time at Judge’s expense.
The Yankees front office has done a much more admirable job at allowing young players to fill the gaps in a time of rebuilding, more so than we’ve ever seen in the past 20 years, but that new inclination still clashes with an old inclination, to hold on to their obsessions until it’s far too late.