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Extending Aaron Hicks is a gamble the Yankees might have to take

Aaron Hicks has quietly been one of the better center fielders in the league, but an extension isn’t exactly an easy decision.

MLB: AL Wild Card-Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Since Aaron Hicks became the Yankees’ primary center fielder in 2017, he’s quietly been one of the best in the game. Outside of perennial world-beater Mike Trout, no American League center fielder put up more WAR than Aaron Hicks this year. Hicks is not as beloved as Didi Gregorius, nor is he an aged veteran leader like Brett Gardner or CC Sabathia. He’s not a former-MVP like Giancarlo Stanton, but one thing is clear: Aaron Hicks is one of the best players on the Yankees and one of the best center fielders in the league.

Hicks is entering his final arbitration year and is estimated to make about $6.2 million, which is quite a steal for such a valuable player. He will undoubtedly seek a bigger payday once he is eligible to become a free agent. Still, the question remains: Should the Yankees extend Hicks?

At his best, Hicks is extremely valuable. He led or nearly led the team in several offensive categories in 2018. Only Aaron Judge was worth more fWAR, and only Brett Gardner was better in terms of baserunning value. Additionally, Hicks led the Yankees in walk rate and set career highs in home runs and wRC+. Hicks’ defensive metrics took a step back from 2017 but were still mostly in-line with his career averages. A switch-hitting, high-OBP, stolen base threat is always a valuable commodity to have at the top of any lineup, and the 80-grade throwing arm certainly doesn’t hurt.

Extending Hicks isn’t exactly an easy call, though. When healthy, he’s a great piece to have in the lineup, but staying in the lineup hasn’t always been a straightforward task for Hicks. He’s dealt with a couple of different oblique injuries, an intercostal strain, and hamstring strains since joining the Yankees prior to the 2016 season. Hicks’ 137 games played in 2018 was a career high.

At season’s end, Hicks will enter free agency as a 30-year-old. Given the state of free agency the last two years, no one really knows what the market will look like, but Lorenzo Cain’s five-year, $80 million deal just before his age-32 season seems like a fair place to start. Given Hicks’ injury history and the length of a market price deal, it’s almost certain that Hicks won’t be able to stick around in center field for the duration of the contract.

Yet letting Hicks walk after the 2019 season isn’t a sure-fire move either. He’ll easily be the best free agent center fielder, and there’s no one currently in the Yankees’ system that would be a better option than Hicks in 2020. Clint Frazier could force his way into the starting lineup by then, but he doesn’t profile in center. Estevan Florial is a center fielder, but he hasn’t even taken an at-bat in Double-A yet. The Yankees have had good fortune with their rookie starters the past few seasons, but it’s much too early to bet on Florial as the starting center fielder on a 2020 team that will competing for a championship.

The Yankees will have to make a tough call on Hicks. There’s no question of his value on the field and around the league, but his age and injury history will complicate matters. The Yankees would almost definitely be paying Hicks for his final prime year(s) and the twilight of his career. The Bombers should still be contending for a World Series in 2020 and Hicks will very likely still be the best option for the center field job. If the Yankees don’t extend Hicks, they’ll have to get creative to find their center fielder of the future.