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Which of the Yankees’ extension candidates is most appealing?

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Of Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances, and Aaron Hicks, who should the Yankees be most interested in extending?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

For the most part, the players that have been a part of the Yankees’ core in recent years will all be around again in 2019. The team stands to lose some of its rentals from last season, namely Andrew McCutchen, Zach Britton, and Lance Lynn, but with the likes of CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner locked up, all the players that have been here for some time will be back for another go.

That might not be true next offseason. A handful of productive players that have called the Bronx home for several years now will hit free agency after 2019, in the form of Didi Gregorius, Dellin Betances, and Aaron Hicks. Brian Cashman has indicated that he intends to broach the idea of extensions with each of these players, but there’s no guarantee that he can keep them from hitting the free agent market.

If the Yankees were to try to keep one of these extension candidates long-term, which of them would be most appealing? Let’s take a look:

Dellin Betances

Betances has had a rocky relationship with the Yankees at times, through no fault of his own. Of the three, he seems most likely to actually test the market, at least based on the fact that the team has occasionally openly antagonized him. He is still a great player, though, and if the team and Betances can bridge the gap that has existed between them at times, an extension could work.

Unfortunately for Betances, he might be the least appealing option from the Yankees’ perspective. Betances was dominant last year, posting a 162 ERA+ and fanning 115 batters in 66.2 innings, but it’s easy to speculate about just how long he can keep this up. Courtesy of Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti of FanGraphs, consider this aging curve regarding relief pitchers:

Betances will be 30 next year, right around the age where relief pitchers generally see their velocity start to plummet and their walk rates sky-rocket. Betances’ velocity has held pretty steady in recent years, so perhaps he can buck the trend, but he’s fighting against history

To some extent, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen serves as a useful comparable. Jansen, also a massive, hard-throwing right-hander, just saw his velocity and effectiveness drop off at age-30. On one hand, he stands as a cautionary tale. Yet on the other, since Jansen (and Betances) is declining from such high points, he can afford to get worse and still be good. Even Jansen’s worst year involved a 3.01 ERA and 10 strikeouts per nine.

Since Betances too will be declining from a dominant peak, he still could be a great pitcher to have on hand even as he progresses through his 30s. That being said, the sketchy track records of relievers and Betances’ own hefty workload makes him the toughest of this trio to extend.

Didi Gregorius

In many ways, Gregorius has been the heart and soul of the Yankees since taking over for Derek Jeter four seasons ago. Once regarded as a glove-only slap-hitting shortstop, Gregorius has developed his offensive game to include both contact and power-hitting. He has morphed into an all around star-caliber player, one of the Yankees’ most endearing personalities, and one of their leaders.

Very few players can both handle short and rake, as Gregorius’ career-high 121 wRC+ ranked sixth among shortstops last season. That level of offensive production, combined with Gregorius’ up-the-middle infield defense, placed him above four WAR by both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs’ calculations, in spite of the fact that he missed some time with injuries. Should the Yankees believe Gregorius can sustain that level of play, he’d be an easy name to pencil in at shortstop for a few more years.

Of course, whether Gregorius can keep it up is the million dollar question. His track record of power-hitting is limited to basically the past two seasons, and Gregorius will be 30 when he hits free agency, not an uncommon time for shortstops to start considering moves down the defensive spectrum.

Gregorius’ offseason Tommy John surgery complicates things further. The Yankees expect Gregorius to return midseason, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he will be able to jump right back in without missing a beat. Gregorius’ injury question marks, coupled with skepticism regarding his ability to keep up this level of power at the plate, make him a tougher player to extend.

All that being said, I’d be a stickler if I didn’t mention that it would be great to keep Gregorius around just on a personal level. Gregorius’ delightful presence on the team makes the club more fun to root for, and his dynamic game is a genuine pleasure to watch. While Gregorius probably isn’t the Yankees’ most appealing extension candidate from a cold, calculating point of view, keeping a player who is a joy like Gregorius is almost always a fine idea.

Aaron Hicks

Of this trio, Hicks may be the best player to bet on. He comes with risks, as they all do. Like Gregorius, Hicks’ track record of offensive excellence is short, with his career-best 127 wRC+ in 2018 sticking out against a 98 career mark. Hicks has always struggled with injuries, and he’s unlikely to suddenly become someone who makes 150 starts a year. Even so, Hicks’ diverse skillset makes him an enticing player to keep around long-term.

I will refer again here to research done by Zimmerman and Petti. Zimmerman found that players that rely on hitting pitches out of the zone tend to age worse than players that hit strikes. Hicks posted one of the seven lowest chase rates in baseball last year, while running a zone-swing rate right around average. Hicks’ discipline gives him a chance to age better than most.

Not only that, Hicks’ all-around athleticism is a plus. Hicks’ foot speed of 28.1 ft/sec checks in above average per Statcast. His contact rate sits around average, while his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives of 93.3 mph rates above the median, suggesting Hicks has average to above average hit and power tools. Not only that, we all know how excellent Hicks’ arm is:

That arm strength and speed combo has allowed Hicks to rank 16 runs above average in the outfield with the Yankees per DRS. Hicks has discipline at the plate, decent contact ability and plus power, to go along with speed and defense. While all those skills will decline at some point, the fact that he has such a wide base of abilities means he will have an easier time finding ways to contribute even as he ages.

Hicks might be the best bet to age well, even with his past injury problems, making him an appealing extension candidate. All told, however, the Yankees have the money to keep all of them. Should they all continue to perform at a high level 2019, the simplest move would be to pony up and keep around some of the Yankees’ most-tenured and effective players. With any luck, 2019 won’t be the last we see of Hicks, Gregorius, and Betances in pinstripes.