The Yankees Have Finally Cut Bait on Aaron Hicks

Aaron Hicks
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

As contractual blunders go, the seven-year, $70 million extension to which the Yankees signed Aaron Hicks in February 2019 is hardly the worst of general manager Brian Cashman’s 26-season tenure. It’s not even the franchise’s worst contract to an outfielder during the 2010s, not when Jacoby Ellsbury’s deal for more than twice that amount was still on the books when the Yankees extended Hicks. As with Ellsbury, however, Hicks’ ongoing series of injuries left the Yankees hamstrung and prevented the switch-hitting center fielder from playing to the potential he’d once shown. On Saturday, the team finally cut bait, designating the 33-year-old for assignment with more than two full seasons remaining on his deal.

Hicks started just five games in center field this year, along with 15 in left field, but he came into the season unclear about his role, and lately his playing time was on the wane. With the return of center fielder Harrison Bader from an oblique strain that cost him all of April, Hicks had made just two spot starts in middle pasture and one in left since May 10, with Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Jake Bauers filling the latter spot, though not to any great effect. No matter Hicks’ role, he was unable to provide much of an offensive spark, hitting just .188/.263/.261 with one homer and a 49 wRC+ in 76 plate appearances. His 2% barrel rate and 22.4% hard-hit rate both placed in single-digit percentiles among batters with at least 70 PA, and his xwOBA is the majors’ lowest at that cutoff:

Lowest xwOBAs of 2023
Player Team PA BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Aaron Hicks NYY 76 49 86.9 2.0% 22.4% .188 .159 .261 .221 .241 .215
Nick Allen OAK 75 58 85.5 1.7% 19.0% .206 .184 .265 .254 .232 .219
Reese McGuire BOS 77 52 83.7 0.0% 28.8% .306 .207 .361 .248 .308 .220
Austin Barnes LAD 74 47 83.2 4.3% 12.8% .092 .149 .108 .216 .152 .222
Christian Arroyo BOS 79 58 85.6 3.4% 27.6% .257 .199 .365 .299 .290 .238
Joey Bart SFG 84 57 84.9 5.3% 22.8% .231 .194 .295 .281 .263 .241
David Hensley HOU 86.0 45 90.4 2.2% 46.7% .130 .181 .182 .260 .194 .244
Wil Myers CIN 133 76 88.1 6.6% 30.3% .198 .185 .298 .299 .249 .244
Corey Julks HOU 118 80 87.0 2.5% 35.0% .254 .221 .351 .323 .271 .244
Mike Zunino CLE 100 41 86.5 7.3% 34.1% .172 .150 .322 .258 .273 .244
Hunter Dozier KCR 91 54 84.4 3.7% 38.9% .183 .183 .305 .285 .248 .244
All statistics through May 21. Minimum 70 plate appearances.

Hicks actually had his first three-hit game of the season in last Thursday’s 4–2 win over the Blue Jays, in his penultimate game as a Yankee; that output matched his previous hit total for May, spread over nine games and 23 PA. But even with that big game, Yankees left fielders ranked dead last in the majors with a 63 wRC+ through Sunday, though Hicks only accounted for a little less than one-third of the plate appearances there:

Yankees Left Fielders, 2023
Oswaldo Cabrera 72 .224 .278 .328 65 0.0
Aaron Hicks 58 .231 .310 .327 82 -0.1
Jake Bauers 26 .130 .231 .130 9 -0.3
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 18 .133 .278 .333 76 0.0
Franchy Cordero 11 .100 .182 .400 54 -0.1
Total 185 .198 .276 .305 63 -0.4
All statistics through May 20. Does not include stats from time at other positions.

A 2008 first-round pick by the Twins out of Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, California, Hicks was rushed to the majors, skipping over Triple-A. He could have used the development time, as the three partial seasons (2013–15) he spent in Minnesota were each interrupted by demotions, and only the last of those was any good (96 wRC+ and 2.0 WAR with 11 homers and 13 steals in 97 games). The Twins traded him to the Yankees for catcher John Ryan Murphy in November 2015, but he landed in the Bronx with a resounding thud, hitting just .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) with -0.3 WAR in 123 games. But he then emerged as a very productive player, hitting a combined .255/.368/.470 (128 wRC+) with 7.0 WAR in 2017–18. After missing 10 weeks due to oblique strains in 2017, he set career highs in games played (137), homers (27) and WAR (4.0) in ’18, a performance that enticed the Yankees to lock him up with an extension.

With Hicks heading into his age-29 season, the contract appeared to be overly long, but it’s best understood as a forerunner of the epic pacts for the likes of Xander Bogaerts, Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, and Trea Turner that we saw this past offseason — deals that dilute the average annual value and make maneuvering around Competitive Balance Tax thresholds a bit easier. Even at $7 million or $8 million per win, the implication that Hicks could produce about 10 WAR over the life of the contract was hardly unreasonable.

After signing, however, the road got bumpier. A lower back strain and an elbow injury that culminated in postseason Tommy John surgery limited Hicks to 59 games in 2019, though he hit for a 103 wRC+. His three-run homer off the Astros’ Justin Verlander keyed a 4–1 win in Game 5 of the ALCS, at a point when the Yankees were down three games to one. That was probably his peak moment in pinstripes.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave Hicks ample time to recover from surgery without further time on the IL. He was back in the lineup on Opening Day in 2020 and hit a productive .225/.379/.414 (120 wRC+) with 1.1 WAR in 54 games. But he was dreadful in the early going in 2021, managing just a 76 wRC+ in 32 games before a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist sidelined him for the season. He returned to play 130 games last year, with his 13.7% walk rate and defensive ability propping up a limp bat; he hit .216/.330/.313 (90 wRC+) but was still worth 1.4 WAR. His season ended on a particularly down note during Game 5 of the Division Series against the Guardians, when he injured his left knee in a collision with Cabrera (then playing shortstop) and had to be helped off the field.

Even with deadline trade acquisition Andrew Benintendi, who didn’t play after September 2 due to a broken hamate bone in his right wrist, departing via free agency, Cashman didn’t do anything to upgrade the Yankees’ left field situation over the winter. Instead he retained Hicks and planned for Judge, who had spent more time in center field than right during his historic 62-homer season, to spot in left on occasion at least at Yankee Stadium, with Giancarlo Stanton playing the easier-to-cover right field. But between Bader’s oblique strain and Stanton’s left hamstring strain which has sidelined him since mid-April, that plan has fallen apart, with Judge again playing more center and both Hicks and Cabrera (.203/.258/.312 overall in 152 PA) getting far too much exposure given their production. Arguably, regular play might have helped Hicks get on track, but it doesn’t exactly say great things about the roster construction and deployment that Kiner-Falefa, a 28-year-old converted infielder with a career 80 wRC+, was playing ahead of him even as he learned the ropes in the outfield.

By DFA’ing Hicks, the Yankees are all but certain to wind up eating the remaining money on his deal, since it’s highly unlikely he’ll be claimed on waivers. That comes to about $27.5 million, with around $7.5 million for the remainder of this season, then $9.5 million in both 2024 and ’25, and a $1 million buyout on his $12.5 million option for ’26. It’s possible the Yankees could trade him in a deal for another bad contract, but unless they have an idea of how to fix that player — say, someone like Hunter Dozier, just DFA’d by the Royals with $12 million still owed, and -2.4 WAR since the start of 2021 — it’s not clear why they would do so.

(For those who clamored for such a rotation-patching move for Madison Bumgarner, himself DFA’d by the Diamondbacks with about $34 million still owed, he’s not only free talent now, but also been unwilling to adapt to the age of analytics to tweak his repertoire and mechanics, per a new report by The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan, which confirms what the data strongly implied. That stance that would never fly in the Bronx under pitching coach Matt Blake, to say nothing of Bumgarner’s low likelihood of survival in the AL East’s tough ballparks.)

The Yankees replaced Hicks on the roster with Greg Allen, a 30-year-old switch-hitting outfielder whom they acquired from the Red Sox in exchange for 18-year-old Mexican righty Diego Hernandez and cash considerations. Allen is a Quad-A type who has totaled just 2.0 WAR with a 73 wRC+ (.233/.300/.339) in 801 PA over parts of seven seasons. Drafted and developed by Cleveland, he spent 2021 in New York after being acquired from the Padres and hit .270/.417/.432 in 48 PA over 15 games with the Yankees, most notably going 5-for-5 in stolen bases. That hints at his his current fit as a tactical weapon off the bench who can pinch-run and play defense, and he’s already shown what he can do. On Saturday against the Reds, he pinch-ran for catcher Ben Rortvedt as the Manfred Man in the 10th inning, taking third on a fly ball and then scoring on a Judge single as the first of three runs in a 7–4 win. On Sunday, he pinch-ran for Bauers, stole second, took third on a wild pitch, and scored on an Anthony Volpe double, then hit a two-out triple in the ninth of what turned out to be a 4–1 win.

Even with Hicks gone, the Yankees have no shortage of replacement-level fodder on their roster in Cabrera (55 wRC+, -0.4 WAR), Kiner-Falefa (56 wRC+, -0.1 WAR), Bauers (75 wRC+, -0.1 WAR), and Willie Calhoun (84 wRC+, -0.2 WAR). All too often, at least two of those players are in the lineup on a given day, that at a time when the team is also making do with a lack of offense from its catchers (Jose Trevino hasn’t replicated last year’s All-Star form and is now down with a hamstring strain) and third basemen (Josh Donaldson has been out since April 5, and DJ LeMahieu has been notably less effective there than elsewhere).

The returns of Stanton and Donaldson will upgrade two of those roster spots. Last week, both were reported as close to beginning rehab assignments; the latter hasn’t played since April 5 due to a right hamstring strain that he reinjured on a rehab assignment and then a sliced thumb. While neither is likely to revert to the form that helped them win MVP awards in the last decade, Stanton was hitting for a 131 wRC+ before getting injured, and Donaldson did manage a 97 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR thanks to his solid defense at third last year. That beats the 80 wRC+ the team has gotten at the spot thus far, including an 89 in about 62% of the PA from the position by by LeMahieu, who has hit for a 106 overall. Donaldson has lost favor with fans since the Tim Anderson incident last year, but so long as he can approximate a league-average player, the Yankees are unlikely to eat the rest of his contract (about $23 million including an $8 million buyout for next year) as they did with Hicks.

The good news for the Yankees is that after going just 15–14 in March and April and even with the aforementioned weak spots (not to mention the short-handed rotation), they’re 14–6 this month, gaining 2.5 games in the standings even while going just 3–4 against the AL East-leading Rays. Judge has hit a jaw-dropping .378/.491/.911 with seven homers in 57 PA after missing 10 games due to a right hip injury. Anthony Rizzo has six homers and a 175 wRC+ this month, and Bader has added a 127 wRC+ as well as strong defense in center field to the mix. Combine that with Luis Severino finally making his 2023 debut on Sunday to fill one of the two holes in the rotation (Carlos Rodón is still dealing with a chronic back issue and is idling in long-toss mode), and the Yankees are suddenly looking much more whole.

As for Hicks, I doubt we’ve seen the last of him at the major league level. Barring a surprise trade or waiver claim before his seven days in DFA limbo run out, whoever signs him will only have to pay the prorated league minimum salary. He’s still a useful defender, and maybe some hitting guru can help him rework his swing. For whatever reason, that never happened for him in the Bronx, and it looms as a costly mistake.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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CC AFCmember
10 months ago

Now do Donaldson

10 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

and IKF

10 months ago
Reply to  mvrd

And Calhoun

10 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

“Josh Donaldson isn’t that bad,” he says as he pulls up Donaldson’s FG profile and sees a wRC+ of 29.

(only 17 PAs but that’s still awful)

10 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Small sample size (for this year alone). He’s been too hurt to be any good.