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Other Smart Moves from the Past 25 Years: Yankees trade for Aaron Hicks

A backup catcher for a starting center fielder — what’s not to like?

MLB: New York Yankees at Minnesota Twins Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: Our “25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Moves” series might have concluded, but with the lockout still in force, we thought that it would be fun to take a week to shout out five other savvy transactions that just barely missed the cut of the top 25 vote. Enjoy!

Following the 2015 campaign, the New York Yankees were in a period of transition. Sure, the team had won 87 games and had made the postseason for the first time in three seasons, but they had an aging roster and had lost to an up-and-coming Houston Astros squad. With top prospect Gary Sánchez waiting in the wings and Austin Romine capable of handling the backup catcher job, the team decided to inject some youth elsewhere on the roster by flipping 24-year-old John Ryan Murphy to the Minnesota Twins for a former top prospect who had lost his shine due to injuries and underperformance, Aaron Hicks.

Trade Details: John Ryan Murphy to Minnesota; Aaron Hicks to New York

Transaction Date: November 11, 2015

NYY stats under initial team control (2016-19): 407 G, .242/.341/.433, 59 2B, 62 HR, 202 BB, 107 OPS+, 12 DRS, 9.3 rWAR, 9.2 fWAR

When the Yankees acquired Hicks, there did not seem to be an immediate path towards regular playing time — they had Brett Gardner under contract through 2018 and Jacoby Ellsbury through 2020. Perhaps, thinking more long-term, they foresaw him as a possible replacement for Carlos Beltrán due to his defense and strong throwing arm, but at the time, he was also a low-risk, high-reward flyer taken on a former first-round pick with four years of team control remaining.

Beginning the season as the team’s fourth outfielder and defensive replacement before taking over the right field after Beltrán was traded to the Rangers (and before Aaron Judge’s debut in mid-August), Hicks struggled during his first year in pinstripes. His .217/.281/.336 slash represented a 33 point drop in OPS+ (from 98 to 65), and he hit three fewer home runs compared to the year prior. The only positive was that Murphy had also faltered in Minnesota and been demoted, so the trade was at least a wash.

If there was one highlight for Hicks from 2016, it was this throw on April 20th, doubling up Danny Valencia with a 105.5 mph throw, Statcast’s fastest at that point in time.

After losing out on the starting right field job to Judge during spring training, Hicks began the 2017 season as the fourth outfielder once again. This time, however, he got out to a hot start with the bat, slashing .293/.432/.576 with eight doubles bouncing between the three outfield positions over the course of the first seven weeks of the season. After Ellsbury suffered a concussion on May 24th, Hicks seized the starting center field job for good, though he did miss time with a pair of oblique injuries.

Hicks flourished during his first bout of postseason play as the 2017 Yankees made their remarkable run. He had a hit in every game as they trounced the Twins in the Wild Card Game and overcame an 0-2 deficit to upset Cleveland in the Division Series. Through six games, he’d hit .318/.375/.500 with a pair of extra-base hits. The Astros put a stop to both the Yankees’ World Series hopes and Hicks’ bat, and the center fielder went ice cold as Houston beat the Yankees in seven.

2018 saw Hicks establish himself as a fierce middle-of-the-order bat, setting or tying career-highs in home runs (27), doubles (18), triples (3), BB% (15.5 percent), barrel rate (8.8 percent), and average exit velocity (89.7 mph). According to FanGraphs, in fact, only two center fielders were more valuable than Hicks, who accrued 5.0 fWAR, that season: Mike Trout (9.6 fWAR) and Lorenzo Cain (5.7 fWAR). In the process, he put himself in unique territory, becoming the first Yankee to hit two inside-the-park home runs in the same season since Mickey Mantle in 1958.

Meanwhile, on July 1st, he became just the third Yankee to hit three home runs against the Boston Red Sox, the first since Mark Teixeira eight years prior.

Following two strong seasons and entering his final year of arbitration, the Yankees inked Hicks to a seven-year, $70 million extension in February 2019 that would keep him in pinstripes through 2026. Unfortunately, injuries robbed him of most of the 2019 season — a lower back strain sidelined him through mid-May, while an elbow injury that would require Tommy John surgery ended his regular season at the start of August. Amazingly, however, he would return for the ALCS, delaying the surgery until the offseason.

In between, Hicks struggled to find his groove at the plate, slashing .204/.302/.259 with just one extra base hit (a home run) through June 3rd. Following a two-hit game against the Blue Jays on June 4th, Hicks began to look like his 2017-18 self, and from that point on, he slashed .246/.333/.503 with 11 home runs and 10 doubles in 45 games — pretty much in line with his previous seasons.

Despite his relatively limited playing time, Hicks found himself in the center of some of the team’s most memorable moments. On June 29th, he became the first player to hit a home run in London, giving the Yankees a 6-0 first-inning lead in what would become a wild 17-13 victory over Boston. Less than a month later, during July 23rd’s epic matchup in Minnesota, he went 2-for-5 with a home run that gave the Yankees the lead in the top of the 9th. The following inning, with the bases loaded and two outs, Hicks ... well, see it for yourself:

Somehow making it back for the ALCS against Houston, Hicks hit a laser off the right field foul pole off Astros starter Justin Verlander to give the Yankees a 4-0 first inning lead in a must-win Game 5; unfortunately, the team was eliminated two days later, potentially robbing Hicks of a signature Yankee moment.

Due to the delayed 2020 season, Hicks managed to fully rehab from Tommy John surgery in time for Opening Day, and despite seeing his power numbers decline — he had roughly half the number of home runs compared to 2019, when he played roughly the same amount of games — his plate discipline and ability to take walks (he was third in baseball with a 19.4 BB%, behind only Juan Soto and Bryce Harper) allowed him to maintain a 122 OPS+.

Following a rough 2021 season that ended after just 32 games due to a torn tendon sheath in his wrist — a relatively rare injury with a wide range of outcomes — it’s fair to question whether Aaron Hicks will play a major role for the Yankees going forward, or if he will be relegated to a (relatively expensive) platoon piece. That being said, when looking at his Yankees tenure holistically, it’s impossible to deny that the initial trade — a backup catcher worth just -0.4 bWAR in 284 games across eight seasons, in exchange for a decidedly above-average outfielder — was anything but a coup.