Three years and three months ago the Yankees swung a trade that was maybe a tad confusing at the time and has since played a major role in the team’s return to prominence. The Yankees sent John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for Aaron Hicks in November 2015. They traded a 24-year-old catcher coming off a .277/.326/.406 (100 wRC+) season for a 26-year-old outfielder with a career .225/.306/.349 (82 wRC+) batting line in parts of three MLB seasons. Hmmm.
Murphy was blocked by Brian McCann and the Yankees had Gary Sanchez coming, so catcher was a position of depth in the organization. Center field was not. Not with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury entering their mid-30s. The Twins gave up on Murphy after 90 plate appearances and Hicks, following a tough year as the fourth outfielder in 2016, has broken out as a cornerstone player the last two years. His ranks among the 87 outfielders with at least 800 plate appearances from 2017-18:
- OBP: .368 (11th)
- wRC+: 127 (18th)
- Baserunning runs: +9.6 (10th)
- WAR: +8.2 (12th)
There’s a reason Hicks was a first round pick (14th overall in 2008) and ranked by Baseball America (subs. req’d) as the 19th best prospect in baseball in 2010. It’s because he’s a great athlete with loads of tools, and had the ability to do exactly what he’s done the last two seasons. That’s become a top 15 outfielder in baseball. Hicks was struggling with the Twins, the Yankees took a chance on his upside, and have been rewarded handsomely.
Next offseason Hicks will be rewarded handsomely, though probably not as handsomely as he would have been a few years ago given the current state of free agency. Hicks will hit the open market next winter as a just turned 30-year-old switch-hitting center fielder who gets on base, has power, runs the bases well, and saves runs in the field. He has an impact in all phases of the game and those guys are hard to find. The Yankees should want to sign him long-term.
With another strong season in 2019, Hicks could’ve gone into free agency seeking Dexter Fowler (five years, $82.5M) or Lorenzo Cain (five years, $80M) money not that long ago. That was the going rate for an above-average two-way center fielder. Hicks will hit free agency one year younger than Fowler was when he signed his deal, and two years younger than Cain. In a “normal” free agent climate, yeah, five years and $80M would’ve been market value.
The market has changed. For whatever reason teams are steering clear of free agents, even great ones like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. “Why get better when you can get cheaper” is a pretty common hot stove theme these days. With a huge 2019, a year even better than 2017-18, yeah, maybe Hicks can still put himself in position for an $80M or so contract next winter. It just seems so unlikely now, no matter what he does this season.
Last week the Dodgers signed A.J. Pollock to a contract that might’ve set the market for Hicks. It’s a complicated contract — I swear, every big money contract the Dodgers give out is complicated — but these are the nuts and bolts:
- Four years with a $12M luxury tax hit.
- Pollock is guaranteed at least $45M.
- Pollock can opt out following year three.
- Pollock has a fifth year player option.
Pollock turned 31 in December, so he’s a year older than Hicks will be when he hits free agency next winter. He’s also had more injury problems in his career. Hicks is no stranger to the disabled list himself, but all his injuries are muscle pulls. Pollock has played only 237 of 486 possible games the last three years because he’s had muscle pulls and broken bones (hand, elbow, thumb). Age and injury history are advantage Hicks.
We don’t know what Hicks will do in 2019 yet, but we do know his 2017-18 seasons were kinda similar to Pollock’s. Look at the numbers:
Same number of games, similar batting average, same strikeout rate, same isolated power, both above-average baserunners and defenders. The biggest difference between the two is Hicks walks a lot more. Literally more than twice as often as Pollock. The numbers say he’s been a better defender and baserunner too, hence a 3.5 WAR difference between the two the last two years.
Had Hicks hit free agency this winter he and his representatives could’ve said he deserves more than Pollock, and they absolutely would’ve been correct. Hicks didn’t hit free agency this winter though. He’ll hit free agency next winter, and who knows how his 2019 season will play out? I think he’ll be fine. He’s only 29 and he’s obviously talented. At age 29, there’s a chance 2019 will be the best year of his career.
There also risk involved with waiting a year until free agency. Hicks could get hurt, or his performance could slip, or the free agent market could get even worse. Rather than wait, Hicks could jump at an extension now. By time the season ends he’ll have made $13.5M between MLB salaries and his draft signing bonus. Take away taxes and agent fees and all that and it’s still a lot of money, but Hicksie might want to lock in long-term security for Baby Hicksie.
Hicks has already signed a one-year, $6M contract for 2019. The Yankees can now sign him to an extension that begins in 2020 without affecting their 2019 luxury tax payroll. Put the Pollock contract (four years, $45M with some bells and whistles) in front of him and it goes like this:
- What’s in it for Hicks? Peace of mind and long-term security, for starters. He also gets an opt-out if things go well and a player option if things don’t. Also, no need to sweat free agency, which is increasingly unfavorable to players. Waiting until January or February to sign is no fun.
- What’s in it for the Yankees? Long-term control of a very good player and cost certainty, which is a big deal for payroll planning. There’s no bidding war and it’s one less core player the Yankees have to worry about signing (Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances are also impending free agents).
The downside for Hicks is he could sell himself short. What if he does have a career year at age 29 in 2019? A career year for Hicks could be something like .300/.400/.550 with 35 homers, 15 steals, and +8 WAR. That would set him up for a large free agent payday, even in this market. As for the Yankees, the downside for them is sinking a lot of money into a player who could lose value. That’s the sort of risk every team takes with every big money signing though.
A few weeks ago Brian Cashman said he’s planning to discuss extensions with Hicks as well as Gregorius and Betances. With the free agent market being what it is, it makes more sense for the Yankees to wait on an extension than ever before. Even with a great year, chances are Hicks is not looking at a massive payday next offseason because massive paydays don’t really exist anymore. The Fowler and Cain contracts are probably his free agent upside and that’s not something that will make or break the Yankees financially. (They’ll pretend it will though.)
I think Hicks is a better player than Pollock — the numbers back me up on this — plus he’ll be a year younger when he hits free agency than Pollock was, so I think getting Hicks at Pollock money would be a pretty great deal. The sooner the Yankees can get it done, the better. Hicks doesn’t have to worry about free agency or long-term security, and the Yankees don’t have to worry about center field for another few years. An extension in Pollock’s range could work for both sides in this free agent market.