We’ve moved into the new year, and nearly a month after the dramatic conclusion of the Arson Judge negotiations followed by a two-weeks standoff with Carlos Rodón, the Yankees still haven’t added an external solution to the hole in left field.
This is enough to cause some distress in fans who have become quite tired of Aaron Hicks and his now two-year sudden decline in offense. But while a trade is still possible, it’s likely as not that Hicks will be on the Opening Day roster. It might be time to accept that the most realistic route to a substantial upgrade in the outfield could include entering the season with Hicks set to take on at least a part-time role.
Before we get into Hicks, parse the remaining free agent outfielders who vaguely fit the Yankees’ set of needs. There are few options left that hit at even a league average rate in 2022. There may be universes in which Jurickson Profar or David Peralta are difference-makers, but it’s probably not this one. Between Hicks, Estevan Florial, and the recently-added Willie Calhoun, the Yankees are loaded with internal options of unproven and unknown quality. Making a lateral move with a signing just for the sake of doing something doesn’t serve much of a purpose.
On the trading side of things, quality players with Yankee-desirable profiles like Daulton Varsho are going for packages that Brian Cashman has typically been reluctant to dish out in recent years. It may not be realistic to expect a similar move before the start of the spring.
But the calculus changes once the season starts. The best route to a quality left fielder may simply be to roll with a combination of Hicks and Oswaldo Cabrera — who showed hints of being a capable outfielder in his big league cameo — and wait for another as-yet unknown player to become available. Perhaps the Pirates will ultimately lower their threshold for dealing Bryan Reynolds. It might seem ludicrous, but if the White Sox fall out of contention early, rumblings could surface about Eloy Jiménez or Luis Robert. A quality year from Ian Happ could earn him a ticket off a likely subpar Cubs team, and any number of players with impending free agencies before 2025 will garner trade interest. We’ve reached the point of the offseason at which trade opportunities seem to become few and far between — if it’s impossible to substantially upgrade between now and Opening Day, there’s simply no reason to not re-adjust our expectations and re-evaluate once the season is underway.
It’s worth considering that Cabrera has hit at an above-average rate at every level of the minors while typically being multiple years young for his league. In his first 171 MLB plate appearances, he hit at virtually the same pace, and though he outperformed some batted ball metrics, it’s interesting that he demonstrated the ability to maximize his power by consistently getting the ball in the air to the pull side. If everything holds as is currently, he’s not going to have to worry about bouncing around the infield, point blank. If they’re not going to trade him — possible, but seemingly unlikely at the moment — giving him enough playing time to find out whether he can be a real contributor is a better plan than using payroll and roster space on someone like Adam Duvall.
The upside isn’t there with Hicks, and like I said earlier, the tough sell is the necessity of giving him a fair number of at-bats if no further moves are made. There’s no denying he’s been brutal at the plate the last two seasons: the 83 OPS+ since 2021 doesn’t lie. Releasing him and eating the remaining $30 million on his contract will be tough for ownership to swallow, but it’s far from unheard of; It wouldn’t even be the biggest dead-money hit incurred this offseason. But it’s unlikely he looks bad enough in spring training to make that a real option, and again, the reality is that he’s probably going to be on the roster one way or another. So let’s try to see what we can see from the optimist’s point of view.
The Statcast numbers don’t lie either: Hicks was hitting the ball worse in 2022 than he ever had. Wrist surgery goes a long way towards sapping a hitter’s power, and while he may simply never get it back, there’s also a non-zero chance that a regular offseason’s worth of work can get him back to hitting the ball at his pre-2022 levels. If he does that, it’s also possible for the Yankees to set him up for success in ways they haven’t in recent years. Cabrera won’t simply be handed the job at the outset of the season, but if he can hold his own enough to let the team keep Hicks healthy and pick his matchups more carefully, there’s a visible route to getting at least average left field production from the in-house options available.
In spite of his struggles, Hicks has still taken walks at an elite rate, and his expected stats against four-seamers remained above-average the last two years. In both the majors and minors, Cabrera did the bulk of his power damage against right-handers, and even if he’s no longer a purely above-average hitter, 250 to 300 well-curated plate appearances — mostly against lefties — from a healthy Hicks is a pill that’s a lot easier to swallow than the 450-odd plate appearances we saw this past season.
If the rest of the Yankees lineup can’t cover for an average or slightly below-average left field crew for a few months, they have bigger problems to deal with. The prospect of entering the season with Hicks set to play a substantial-ish (if not significant) role might be unappealing, but we have to look around and be realistic. Demonstrating impulse control now and waiting until the spring and summer to re-evaluate who’s available to be traded and traded for is still the best long-term and playoff-friendly option for putting a high-quality player in left field. That requires them spending a couple months trying to squeeze some life out of Hicks — it could help grease the wheels for a trade, after all — while also evaluating Cabrera’s viability as a hitter. It’s not ideal, but it’s hard to have a perfect offseason, and ultimately, it’s probably not going to sink or swim the 2023 Yankees.
Only three more months to speculate about it. Into the new year we go, and on to whatever moves may follow — or not!