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Why the Yankees were smart to extend Aaron Hicks

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Aaron Hicks is one of the best center fielders in baseball, and he’s sticking with the Yankees.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Acquired via trade from Minnesota for John Ryan Murphy in November of 2015, the Yankees and their fans hoped that Aaron Hicks would develop into a solid fourth outfielder. But so far, he’s accomplished much more than that.

Heading into spring training in 2017, then-Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided to stage a competition between Hicks and Aaron Judge to determine which player would open the season as New York’s starting right fielder. Although many fans guffawed, believing that the job rightfully belonged to Judge, the competition proved a stroke of genius. After Judge narrowly won the contest, Hicks became the starting center fielder when Jacoby Ellsbury went down with an injury.

Although he battled through injuries of his own, Hicks managed to produce 3.9 WAR over 88 games in 2017. He missed time last season as well, but still compiled 4.7 WAR in 137 games, belted 27 homers, drove in 79 runs, and scored 90 times — all career highs. Judge (5.5 WAR) was the only Yankees position player who outperformed Hicks in 2018 — a noteworthy achievement, considering the Yankees won 100 games. Hicks’ importance to the success of the team cannot be overstated.

While Hicks’ seven-year, $70 million contract extension might be viewed as a continuation of the organization’s strategy of raising the floor, there could actually be more to it than that. Based on WAR totals from the last two years, only Mike Trout and Lorenzo Cain outperformed Hicks in center field. Sure, Trout nearly doubled Hicks’ production. But Hicks outproduced standout center fielders like Charlie Blackmon, Ender Inciarte, Kevin Pillar, and Jackie Bradley Jr. — despite playing only 225 games.

The big question is: What is Hicks’ ceiling, and can he stay healthy for the Yankees to find out?

Hicks reminds me of Bernie Williams. Bernie made his debut in 1991 at age 22, but took some time to blossom into a star. Williams finally exploded with 6.4 WAR during his age-26 campaign in 1995, and subsequently became a perennial All-Star. He frequently earned down-ballot MVP Award votes, and notched a seventh-place finish in 1998 when he won the AL batting title with a .339 average.

Williams compiled 41.6 WAR over an eight-year stretch beginning in 1995, which averages out to about 5.2 per year. Perhaps most importantly, Bernie was a model of consistency, as he dipped below 5.0 WAR only twice during that run. He produced 4.0 WAR in 1996 and 4.5 in 2002. Bernie’s contributions proved absolutely critical to the Yankees’ success during that period.

Roy White comes to mind as another long-time Yankees outfielder. White arrived in the late 1960s as Mickey Mantle was fading, but became the mainstay of a rebuild that culminated in the late-70s dynasty. White produced 47.3 WAR over a 10-year period beginning in 1968. He averaged 4.7 WAR per year over that stretch, while topping out at 6.8 WAR and never dipping below 3.2.

Williams and White were two iconic Yankees players who each anchored a dynasty. While both fell short of putting up Hall of Fame-worthy numbers, each played an indispensable role on some of the most successful teams in franchise history. I can easily envision Hicks becoming that kind of producer for the Yankees, if he can find a way to stay healthy.

When news broke of Hicks’ extension, I was preparing background material for an article on why the Yankees really need to extend him, rather than allowing his talent to hit the open market following the 2019 season. One of the things I discovered is that there truly is a shortage of center fielders of Hicks’ caliber. While Hicks’ ceiling may not be as high as Trout’s (whose is?), he still stands head and shoulders above 90% of the players in the game today at his position. The Yankees were very smart to extend him, and I have a feeling fans are going to look back at Hicks’ acquisition (and subsequent extension) as one of General Manager Brian Cashman’s best under-the-radar moves.

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.