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The Yankees are walking the tightrope in center field

Without a backup plan, Aaron Hicks’ performance in 2022 may go a long way toward determining the Yankees final place in the standings.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

For a team that won 92 games and earned a Wild Card berth last season, the Yankees somewhat paradoxically had numerous roster construction issues to closely examine this past offseason. Some were addressed (albeit not necessarily in the manner the fans were hoping for), but one of the areas where the team decided to stick with the status quo was with their starting centerfielder.

The hope and the plan, of course, is that Aaron Hicks returns to the form he displayed over the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Over that stretch, Hicks produced 8.2 bWAR with a 125 OPS+ in 942 PA. His bWAR was fifth-best among center fielders over the two-year span, and interestingly exceeded George Springer’s despite Hicks appearing in 55 fewer games than the former Astros World Series MVP.

Yet to address the elephant in the room, even the most ardent Hicks fans among us have to admit that 2018 was a long time ago and things have not gone well since. He missed over 100 games of the 2019 season with multiple injuries, and then after a healthy (but COVID-abbreviated) 2020 season, he missed 144 games in 2021 with a wrist injury that required surgery. To raise eyebrows even further, his play wasn’t as good as it had been previously even when he was on the field. Across 592 PA since the start of 2019, Hicks has produced 1.7 bWAR with a 103 OPS+, which isn’t awful but it is a long way from good. There’s even a good case that he should simply give up switch-hitting at this point.

In some instances and on other teams, this may not be an enormous concern, but it is with this ballclub. The 2022 Yankees don’t have the 2019-20 version of Brett Gardner — who produced 4.6 bWAR per 650 PA over those two seasons — to jump into action if Hicks doesn’t play well. As the roster currently stands, the only players who can play center field should Hicks struggle are Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo, and Marwin Gonzalez. The keyword there is “can,” as there’s a good reason that, as talented as they are, all three have played in less than 10 percent of their career games in center field.

That’s if Hicks simply struggles — if a long-term solution is needed should he be injured again, the picture isn’t any brighter. The organization has center fielders who are highly regarded prospects, but all playing below Triple-A aren’t close to being ready for the show.

Meanwhile, Triple-A Scranton center fielder Estevan Florial has been with the organization since 2015, and perhaps tellingly, has never been given an extended look with the big squad, appearing in only 12 games over the 2020 and ’21 seasons with the Yankees. Given the injuries and struggles of Hicks, and the age of Gardner over that span, one can assume if the team thought Florial was the answer, he would have received an extended look by now. Outside of Florial, the only other option is Tim Locastro, who did not make the Opening Day roster and has a career 78 OPS+ in 209 games at the MLB level.

This understandably creates considerable tension in the shoulders, as Yankees fans all remember that the team tried an unproven shortstop with no backup plan last season and that didn’t end well. Given that they squeaked into the postseason with only one win to spare in 2021, it’s not an understatement to say the substandard play from that key position almost cost the team dearly (and certainly could’ve at least cost them home-field advantage in the doomed Wild Card Game). Looking forward to how we all expect the AL standings to end up in ‘22, one or two games very well may be the difference between reaching the postseason or going home after Game 162. Poor play from an up-the-middle position might put the team’s chances in serious jeopardy.

All that said — and with the large caveat that my crystal ball isn’t any clearer than yours — I think it’s more likely than not the Yankees will get a good season out of Hicks. He’s only 32 years old, which certainly isn’t young by baseball terms but isn’t old enough that we should expect his 2019-21 regression to be due to something other than the effects of injuries.

Yet the entire situation underscores the tightrope the organization chose to walk by not having a backup plan, which has very little to do with Hicks and much to do with the front office and ownership. Similar to how which direction the wind blows will have a huge effect on the fortunes of a tightrope walker, the level of production that the team gets from Hicks will have a huge effect on the fortunes of the team, given how close we expect the AL East standings to be at season’s end.