As of this moment, Aaron Hicks is penciled in to be the starting center fielder for the New York Yankees in 2022. He just finished a fairly successful tune-up in the Dominican Winter League — he finished with a .729 OPS in 12 games after missing nearly the entire season in 2021 — and will look to return to the version of himself the organization extended in 2019.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, there are a couple gigantic elephants in the room when it comes to any discussion about Aaron Hicks: the much larger and more aggressive elephant is his inability to stay on the field, while the second smaller but still quite noticeable elephant is his contract. Let’s get these out of the way first, shall we?
Hicks has been with the organization since 2016. In those seasons, the Yankees have played a total of 870 games. Hicks has played in just 493 (or 56.7 percent) of them. The injuries have piled up since 2017. He has suffered multiple oblique injuries, a nagging lower back issue, calf strains, has had Tommy John surgery, and has most recently had surgery for a torn tendon sheath in his wrist. I may have missed a couple minor injuries along the way, but things have not gone Hicks’ way in New York.
Following his excellent 2018 season, the Yankees gambled on his health and signed him to a seven-year, $70 million contract. There are two ways of thinking about this contract, and I think both of them are correct. On the one hand, investing seven years in a center fielder with a serious track record of injury — prior to coming to New York in 2016, Hicks had never played in more than 97 games in a single season — is a very risky move. On the other hand, in the 2017 (injury-shortened, naturally) and 2018 seasons, Hicks combined to slash .255/.368/.470 (.838 OPS) with 42 home runs, a 15 percent walk rate, and a 128 wRC+ while posting 8.3 fWAR. That is incredible value for just $10 million per year. Either way, however, there is no arguing that this contract has obviously not worked out the way either party intended.
That brings us to 2021. Despite calls from fans for a significant upgrade at center field, barring any unforeseen circumstances once the lockout ends, Aaron Hicks will once again start in center field for the Yankees. While I absolutely understand the calls for an upgrade and I’d ideally like to see one made myself, there are multiple reasons that Hicks will still be this team’s starter.
The first is Hicks’ aforementioned contract status. While the cost of the deal is not particularly significant — contrary to how regular, not-rich people like myself think, $10 million is not a lot for the Yankees to pay a starting center fielder, especially one who provides the offensive production he does when on the field — but the length of the contract suggests that Hicks was seen as a cornerstone for this core before eventually shifting to a corner at the backend of the contract. There is simply no way that this organization’s front office is willing to scrap this lengthy extension just two seasons removed from it becoming official.
The second factor is a lack of significant upgrades available on the market. Starling Marte was probably the only real upgrade available in free agency, but he signed a four-year, $78 million contract with the Mets. Signing a 33-year-old who relies on his legs to a contract that will pay him $19.5 million into his age-37 season might not be the wisest move for a team operating with self-imposed budget constraints. Aside from Marte, there are simply no other upgrades available in free agency. Please do not offer up Kevin Pillar as an actual solution.
That brings us to the trade market. While Ketel Marte and Bryan Reynolds’ names have been floated around and are certainly attractive options, there are problems with both. First, there hasn’t really been any solid rumors to suggest either the Diamondbacks or the Pirates are looking to part ways with either player, so this is all just speculation at this point. In the case of Marte, he has also shown some serious issues with staying on the field, as he’s only played a full season twice since 2015. In Reynolds’ case, rebuilding or not, I’m not entirely sure what would motivate the Pirates to move a 26-year-old center fielder who appears to be an offensive powerhouse with four more years of team control under their belt. Either way, both Marte and Reynolds would cost the Yankees a ton of prospects, and I’m not entirely sure they’re willing to do that.
On top of the lack of available options on the market, there’s also the lack of available options internally. I suppose Estevan Florial is probably the most immediate option, but he hasn’t shown enough for a team that’s looking to contend to hand him the starting center field job and obviously needs some more time to develop in Scranton. Aside from Florial, the other center fielders in the system — Jasson Domínguez and Everson Pereira — are still a ways away from the majors.
Finally, there’s the fact that the Yankees haven’t really indicated that they see center field as a top priority this offseason. While Brian Cashman indicated that the team might be looking to upgrade center field prior to the lockout, nothing that the team has done, at least that we know of, has indicated that they are aggressively pursuing an upgrade. It’s abundantly clear that the Yankees are prioritizing shortstop and first base this offseason — whether we like the speculation we’ve seen or not aside — so I can’t see them going out of their way to upgrade center field unless they fail to make a splash in those other higher priority areas.
All of this to say that, in all likelihood, Aaron Hicks will slide right back into the starting center field role whenever the 2022 season starts. For the sake of Hicks’ career, the Yankees’ contention hopes, and my sanity, I really hope Hicks is able to stay on the field this year. Lord knows the team could use him.