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Aaron Hicks’ injury leaves the Yankees with outfield questions

Even a best-case recovery puts the center fielder on the shelf for half the year. Who steps up?

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Hicks hit a home run in the ALCS with a torn UCL. That’s amazing.

Truth be told, I think we all figured that Hicks’ arm injury was more significant than the Yankees were letting on, and we were right. The center fielder needs Tommy John surgery, and this is the third straight year a Yankee position player will require the procedure. Gleyber Torres tore his UCL in June of 2017 and was in game shape for spring training the following year, while Didi Gregorius underwent the procedure in October of last year and was back on the field in June 2019.

Tommy John for position players isn’t quite as long a recovery as it is for pitchers, but we’re still looking at 8-9 months of recovery for Hicks, and it’s fair to wonder how effective he’ll be upon returning. Torres was terrific in 2018, but he had the advantage of a full spring training. Hicks will be returning midseason, and we saw with Didi Gregorius that being thrown into the middle of game action may not be the best way to bring a player back from TJS.

Hicks’ injury opens up a slot in the Yankees’ outfield for the time being, and it certainly seems like Brett Gardner would be welcomed back by the club if he wanted to keep playing. Gardy had nearly a career year, benefiting from the juiced ball while showing no real signs of physical decline. His sprint speed was virtually identical - 29.1 ft/s in 2018 vs 28.9 ft/s this year - and was pretty neutral in center field, while playing above average in left, on par with his career performance.

Without even wrapping in any kind of leadership or veteran presents benefits, on a pure performance level it looks like Gardner would be an acceptable option to man CF in the Bronx at least until Hicks returns. The right field spot will be held down by Aaron Judge of course, hoping to put together his first 150-game season since 2017. That leaves a likely scenario where Mike Tauchman and Clint Frazier battle out for the left field spot.

In 2019, Tauchman was just flat-out better than Frazier all around, with a higher wRC+, lower K-BB%, identical ISO and far superior defensive play. Tauchman also has the advantage in terms of flexibility, or lack thereof - Frazier will have one more minor league option year remaining, while Tauchman’s all out. The rule of thumb with rosters goes that a guy with options will lose out to a guy without.

Despite pretty positive process numbers, though, Tauchman still is relatively unproven. 296 good plate appearances isn’t anything to sneeze at, but it’s not a substantial track record. We live in the era of the breakout player, but we also live in the era of “THIS guy is bound to break out eventually!”.

In raw contact, the two are pretty split. Frazier barrels far more of his batted balls, the two are tied in max exit velocity, and Tauchman hits a higher percentage of his batted balls 95 mph or more. Tie goes to the guy with the better plate discipline, so it still looks like Tauchman is the favorite.

All this could leave Frazier in the cold for another year, as he just can’t put it all together at the major league level. If his defense was better it would compensate for a less-effective-than-expected bat, and if his bat was better you wouldn’t care about the defense. In the early stages of the offseason, the Yankees sure don’t look like they’ll use him in the primary rotation to replace Aaron Hicks.