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Aaron Hicks’ steady rise and steep fall

Hicks slipped from an auspicious four years with the Yankees as a starting center fielder into a disgruntled aging veteran.

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MLB: Spring Training-Washington Nationals at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Hicks’ tumultuous time in pinstripes may be nearing its final chapter earlier than expected. The much-maligned outfielder has resorted to complaining in interviews about his role, often a death sentence for any player. Although his contract is just big enough that Hal Steinbrenner might balk at an outright DFA, it’s still an opportune time to look back at the extreme highs and lows that define Hicks’ career in the Bronx.

As a high schooler, Baseball America scouts saw a “top-of-the-order tablesetter, while others consider him more of a solid regular who’ll hit sixth or seventh on a good team while providing premium defense in center.” This didn’t end up being far from the truth, but it took awhile, even after becoming a Top-20 Prospect.

A first-round pick in 2008, Hicks offered all the skills necessary to play center field, especially with his throwing arm grading out as elite. Several teams looked into selecting him a pitcher since he hit 98 mph as a high school senior, but the Twins opted to draft him as an outfielder at 12th overall.

Upon Hicks’ debut as a MLB regular in 2013, the acclaimed prospect pegged to be a surefire big leaguer struggled. The Twins grew impatient, even though immediate success in The Show is almost impossible — just ask Aaron Judge.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

2013 and 2014 were trying years for Hicks. He bounced between Triple-A and the bigs, failing to hit enough to justify a starting role. At the end of the 2015 season, after three years of struggles, the Twins gave up on Hicks, trading him to New York for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy.

Hicks posted a 64 wRC+ in 123 games in 2016, but unlike the Twins, the Yankees stuck with him. They already knew from personal experience that he was a superb defender, but he’d never had an above-average or even close to average season at the plate. The organization banked on the hope that they could change that. The deal for Murphy — who played just 26 big league games in Minnesota — turned out to be quite a coup.

The outfielder proved the Yankees right and almost doubled his walk rate in 2017 at 14.1 percent after posting an 8.3 percent mark in 2016. Hicks had a 128 wRC+ in 361 plate appearances, finally becoming the player who the Twins saw as the No. 12 overall pick. His plate discipline got him over the hump and would prove to be his strongest asset as a hitter.

Hicks’ defensive tools turned into bona fide skills in ‘17, achieving an 86th percentile mark in Outs Above Average in center field. He made several absurdly athletic catches in center, including this one to rob a grand slam against the Rays.

2018 was by far Hicks’ best season as a Yankee: 4.3 fWAR with a 129 wRC+ at the plate. He cranked up his walk rate even further to 15.5 percent. He also showed a penchant for clutch moments, including a three-homer game on July 1st in a rivalry matchup with the eventual champion Red Sox.

Additionally, Hicks walked off the O’s to clinch a playoff berth on September 22nd.

Hicks’ future looked bright for the Yankees, but an untimely hamstring injury cut his 2018 postseason short.

Encouraged by the results, the Yankees gave Hicks a seven-year extension before the 2019 season. This is a long commitment to any player, but it certainly made some sense. Because of his plate discipline, his game was poised to age like fine wine, decreasing the likelihood of an albatross contract. At $70 million, the deal represented a sound investment below market value anyway for a quality center fielder who showed all the makings of a great Yankee.

Hicks battled injuries throughout 2019 with the big blow being a torn UCL at the end of the season, but was productive at the plate. No consideration of Hicks would be complete without acknowledging the game which my colleagues have written about, his incredible performance against the Twins on July 23rd in which he single-handedly defined a Yankees win.

Afterward, Hicks was ebullient and gave credit to his teammates, acknowledging the schadenfreude of beating his former team.

Hicks showed remarkable grit playing with a torn UCL in the 2019 playoffs and had one of the most iconic moments of that postseason for the Yankees, a towering three-run shot off Justin Verlander in Game 5 of the ALCS.

Hicks’ Yankee resume was impeccable after 2019, and Cashman looked genius securing such a clutch player for below market value.

In the 2020 season shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hicks played well and, in 211 plate appearances, accumulated a wRC+ of 124. He showed his signature plate discipline to work long, productive at-bats. In the five-game ALDS against the Rays, Hicks was 7-for-22 with four extra base hits but the Yankees couldn’t get it done.

This would be Hicks’ peak. 2021-2022 brought decaying skills and his standing with both the organization and fanbase took a nosedive.

2021 was almost entirely lost to a bad wrist injury that previously felled one-time teammate Mark Teixeira, with Hicks posting a 76 wRC+ and the lowest walk rate of his career at 11.1 percent in just 32 games. Questions about his commitment to baseball surfaced — he was eviscerated by fans for his habit of frequently playing golf. Whether justified or otherwise, the facts are that the Bronx faithful wasn’t pleased.

In 2022, Hicks had another subpar year at the plate highlighted by an atrocious 58 wRC+ in the second half, and even seemed to display poor effort at times. Judge’s ability to play center field made Hicks obsolete. He looked checked out on the field due to his lack of a regular starting role, particularly as the season wound down.

Many fans remember what happened in September at Yankee Stadium against the Rays.

Upon the play in the left field corner, it became clear Hicks felt defeated and quite literally gave up on the play and the team. This was the moment he showed a new tendency to mope rather than work hard to get his spot back. Aaron Boone is about as much of a player’s manager as you’ll find in baseball, but even he felt like he had to pull Hicks from the game.

Both spring training and the start of 2023 haven’t been particularly inspiring, either. Last week, up-and-comer Oswaldo Cabrera was named the starting left fielder with Hicks in a vague semi-bench role. Hicks’ subsequent remarks last week to Brendan Kuty of The Athletic came off as whiny to the last for a decade-long big leaguer. He grumbled “I don’t want to come off the bench and face closers all day,” eliciting eye rolls all around from those who have watched him fail to hit on a consistent basis since the stadiums were all empty two and a half years ago.

Hicks participated in a hilariously awkward YES interview before the April 3rd game against the Phillies in which he unconvincingly stated “I just need to go out there and have fun.” His comments fell flat and came off as damage control.

The contrast between this and the on-field interview after the Twins game in 2019 is eminent. The organization doesn’t seem to have much confidence in him either, opting to sign fringe big leaguer Franchy Cordero to fill in the fourth outfielder role rather than Hicks. He’s started the last two games, but that feels anomalous going forward — especially when regular center fielder Harrison Bader returns from injury. Will Hicks even deserve a roster spot over Cordero at that point? The fact that it’s even a question is galling.

Hicks is owed about $31 million and is under contract through 2025 with a club option for 2026. Three more full seasons of Hicks taking up a roster spot seems unlikely. His skills have depleted quickly, just as his goodwill from the fanbase has. He has a steep hill to climb to get back on the field and into their good graces.