When constructing a baseball team for the grind of the 162-game season, there is one thing that everyone should keep in mind: the team that starts the season is rarely the team that finishes the season. Injuries happen. Poor performances happen. Trades happen. It is important for general managers to think in terms of the long season; they don’t have to plug every hole before the season begins, especially if there are young players on the cusp of the major leagues or if the trade market may improve with some patience. Brian Cashman looks like he is playing this long game for the 2023 season.
With spring training less than three weeks away, it is looking more and more likely that the Yankees are entering the 2023 season with the same offensive group they finished with last season. On one hand, they are returning a group that led the American League in runs scored, home runs, and walks, while finishing second in the league in wRC+ and wOBA. Despite their flaws, the offense produced enough to win the AL East and advanced to the ALCS.
The lineup still does have weaknesses, though, and one of the potential gaping holes that wasn’t filled was left field. Early in the winter, it seemed inevitable that left field would be addressed either with a trade or a free agent signing. While there is an option, maybe two, left on the market, it appears that Cashman is willing to bet on one of the internal options and that his offense can once again be among the league’s best.
Some may reasonably favor the Yankees moving soon-to-be 24-year-old Oswaldo Cabrera to left field on a full-time basis (something Esteban argued for last week), betting on youth and Cabrera’s impressive play in limited time last season. They could finally give Estevan Florial a bigger chance as well. Both are, to some extent, dart throws. Florial has shown little in his brief stints and the majors, and Cabrera, as good as he was in 2023, has a limited track record of offensive success, and moving Cabrera to the outfield could strip him of his value of being able to play multiple positions. In a veteran lineup, having a player with that type of defensive flexibility is important.
That leaves one last option, the one that nobody wants to talk about.
We haven’t seen peak Aaron Hicks since the 2018 season when he posted a .360 wOBA and 129 wRC+ along with 27 home runs. From 2019 through 2022, he has hit .220/.334/.367 with a .311 wOBA and a 98 wRC+ while playing just 275 games (130 of them in 2022). He’s also had some bizarre defensive moments, which is the one area of Hicks’ game that is still above average.
It is difficult to argue about that Hicks will bounce back to be any semblance of the player he was in his prime. Sure, we can bring up his recent injuries, as it can be argued that Hicks was just a little more than a year removed from Tommy John surgery and a wrist injury in 2022, and that last year was more about being on the field for him.
But, when he was on the field, the numbers do not lie. He’s been a disappointment, and it seems unlikely that his ability to drive the ball like he could when he was younger will ever return. We can say, however, that a healthy Aaron Hicks, even the 2022 version, does bring some positive qualities should he get first crack at the starting left field position.
Before trying to dive into Hicks, it is important to truly know what it means to be an average left fielder in today’s game. Last season, the average left fielder produced a slash line of .241/.315/.389 with a .310 wOBA and a 100 wRC+. Defensively, the average left fielder produced a DRS of +0.8.
The 2022 version of Aaron Hicks doesn’t quite hit the mark as he hit .216/.330/.313 with a .292 wOBA and 90 wRC+, though he’s also not far off. There is no question that he was a below average offensive hitter when it comes to hitting the ball with authority, but Hicks has retained some on-base skill as he’s aged. Despite the complete lack of thump at the plate, Hicks showed he can still get on base via the walk. His 13.8 percent walk rate puts him in the 95th percentile.
All that said, we still cannot look at Hicks’ offensive production and reason that it’s good enough to be the starting left fielder for a team with as lofty expectations as New York. So, why is he still the best option to start the season?
The Yankees invested in the pitching staff in a big way, and run prevention will be more important than ever for the success of the club. Aaron Judge is an elite defender in right field. Bader is an elite defender in center field. And Hicks is still a quality defensive player in left, ranking eight runs above average out there per DRS and finishing in the 61st percentile per Outs Above Average.
Without an obvious offensive replacement, Hicks’ defense alone makes him a fine choice to start the season. That defensive outfield will prevent runs, and Hicks is the only guarantee of the left field candidates. Cabrera played very well out there in his brief run last year, but had essentially never played outfield before 2022, and is far from a sure thing (and again, his ability to play multiple positions could be his true calling card). Florial, in his limited stints, hasn’t fared well according to DRS.
Hicks’ two reliable skills of elite defense and getting on base, despite the lack of everything else, make him a fine option to start the season.
There are a couple of more important reasons to give Hicks the first chance. First, it is reasonable to allow the Yankees’ young players the opportunity to develop at their own pace and in a better role. Yes, Cabrera did well in the outfield last season, especially in right field, but this veteran roster will need him to play multiple positions. He is the one player who can fill in at the corner outfield spots and every infield spot. Could he hold down the everyday left field job? Quite possibly. But, would he be more valuable as an excellent utility player who can spell nearly every player on the roster? Probably, and that would make the 2023 Yankees a better team.
Moreover, this also buys time for Cashman to explore the trade market at midseason. The Pirates’ current asking price for Bryan Reynolds is said to be quite high. As the 2023 season progresses, the market will most likely force them to lower their demands. Other players will also become available as well as some teams fall out of the race, even if we don’t quite know who just yet. There isn’t any need to rush.
Without a more guaranteed option, there is no harm in at least starting the year with Hicks as the primary left fielder. Remember, this was a team that gave Joey Gallo 273 plate appearances and got below average seasons from Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, and Hicks last season and still won 99 games. How did they do that? They added Harrison Bader and called up Cabrera and Oswald Peraza to fill the holes. The Yankees still have that type of depth to either fill from its farm system or to trade for an upgrade if necessary.
Hicks will play good defense and get on base at an above average rate, buying the Yankees time to make bigger decisions. At the end of the day, if a youngster like Cabrera definitively proves he needs to play everyday, the Yankees can always just promote Cabrera to the starting role. It may not be optimal for Hicks to finish 2023 as the Yankees’ left field regular, but he’ll be fine to start it as such.