The Long-Term Future in Center Field

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

This is an exciting time to be a Yankees fan. The big league team might not be any good this season, and frankly they haven’t been all that good over the last four years anyway, but at least now the farm system is loaded and there are a ton of quality young players in the organization. Soon young guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier will join Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird in the Bronx.

At some point in the near future, perhaps sooner than anyone realizes, the Yankees will have to figure out their center field situation. The two best center fielders on the roster, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, will both turn 34 later this year. Over the last ten years there has been one full-time center fielder age 34 or older: Mike Cameron, who continued to play center full-time from ages 34-36 in 2007-09. No one else has done it.

Center field is a young man’s position because it involves lots and lots of running, day after day after day. The Yankees had Johnny Damon begin the process of moving to left field at age 33 because Melky Cabrera was the superior defensive option, remember. By center fielder standards, Gardner and Ellsbury are pretty darn old, and it stands to reason they won’t be viable options at the position much longer. Speed usually doesn’t age all that well.

This creates two questions for the Yankees. One, who plays center field long-term? And two, what do the Yankees do with Gardner and/or Ellsbury? I’ll answer the second one first: they’re probably going to trade Gardner at some point. Would they prefer to trade Ellsbury? Yeah, I’m sure of it. But that’s not happening, so Gardner it is. They’ve been listening on him for over a year, and it feels like only a matter of time until a trade goes down.

I get the feeling the eventual outcome here is Gardner gets traded away, then Ellsbury slides over to left field for the tail end of his contract, similar to Damon back in the day. (Or worse, to designated hitter full-time.) That creates an opening in center field, and as good as the farm system is these days, the Yankees don’t have an elite center field prospect. Torres is a shortstop, Frazier and Aaron Judge are corner outfielders, and so on.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees lack potential center field options, however. Not at all. They actually have quite a few, both short-term and long-term. That’s good. Multiple options are good. As much as we all love the prospects, the reality is they won’t all work out, and you’d hate to pin your hopes on that one guy to take over a position long-term. Here, in no particular order, are the club’s various long-term center field options.

The Almost Ready Option

Fowler. (Presswire)
Fowler. (Presswire)

When the 2017 regular season begins, Dustin Fowler figures to roam center field for Triple-A Scranton. Fowler is New York’s best pure center field prospect — I ranked him as the 12th best prospect in the system overall — and last year he hit .281/.311/.458 (109 wRC+) with 30 doubles, 15 triples, 12 homers, and 25 steals in Double-A. He really fills up the box score. Fowler is also a very good defender with plenty of range.

There are two glaring weaknesses to Fowler’s game. One, he doesn’t have much of a throwing arm. And two, he’s pretty undisciplined at the plate. Minor league walk rates aren’t everything, though his career 4.4% walk rate in over 1,500 minor league plate appearances is emblematic of his approach. Those are negatives, clearly, but Fowler also offers enough positives to be an everyday player. He makes contact, has some pop, steals bases, and defends well. Similar skill set to peak Ellsbury now that I think about it.

For all intents and purposes, Fowler is a call-up candidate right now. He’s going to start the season in Triple-A and will be added to the 40-man roster no later than next winter (when he’s Rule 5 Draft eligible), and any time those combination of things exist, there’s a chance for the player to wind up in the show. Fowler is, by far, the Yankees’ best close to MLB ready center field prospect. He is easily the favorite to take over the position in the short-term.

The Square Peg, Round Hole Option

Although his tools point to a long-term future in left field, Frazier has enough speed and athleticism to handle center field right now, if necessary. He has plenty of experience at the position — he’s played more minor league games in center (260) than he has in left and right combined (117) — and still possesses enough speed to cover the gaps. Would Frazier be a perfect fit in center? No, but it’s doable. The question is whether mid-30s Ellsbury in left and Frazier in center is a better defensive alignment than mid-30s Ellsbury in center and Frazier in left. It’s not so cut and dried.

The Conversion Candidates

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

The Yankees are loaded with shortstop prospects at the moment, so much so that they’ve had Tyler Wade and Jorge Mateo get acquainted with the outfield. Wade played all three outfield spots in the Arizona Fall League last year and he’s been out there this spring as well. Mateo worked out in center field in Instructional League and is doing the same this spring. He’s yet to play an actual game out there, however.

Wade, like Fowler, will open this season in Triple-A, though he’s not an immediate center field option given his inexperience at the position. He’s not someone the Yankees could call up and stick in center for two weeks in May to cover for injuries, you know? That’s a little too soon. Besides, it seems the Yankees are looking to make Wade a super utility player, not a full-time outfielder. He’s too good defensively on the infield to throw that away entirely.

As for Mateo, I am pretty intrigued with the idea of putting him in center field full-time. He’s a good defender at shortstop, that’s not much of a problem, but his truly elite speed may be put to better use in center. Mateo is a good defender at short. He might be a great defender in center. Either way, Mateo is not close to the big leagues like Fowler, Frazier, and Wade. He’s yet to play above High-A and has to answer some questions about his bat before we can start to think about him as a realistic center field option. (And, you know, he has to actually play some games in center too.)

The Reclamation Candidate(s)

Earlier I mentioned Gardner and Ellsbury are the two best center fielders on the roster, which is true when taking all things into account. The best defensive center fielder on the roster is Aaron Hicks (despite a few funky routes last season). He’s got top notch closing speed and a rocket arm. Right now, in the year 2017, Hicks is a better gloveman than either Gardner or Ellsbury in center.

The best defensive outfielder in the entire organization is another reclamation project: Mason Williams. He’s a premium runner who gets great reads, and while his arm isn’t Hicks caliber, it is comfortably above average. Even after shoulder surgery two years ago. It’s unclear whether Williams will ever hit enough to play regularly, but his glove is unquestioned. The Yankees could play him everyday in center and he could handle it defensively.

That “will he ever hit?” question is a big one though, and it applies to Hicks as well. Hicks and Williams are so talented that you can never rule out things coming together, especially at their ages, but for them to have any shot at replacing Ellsbury in center field full-time, they’re going to have to do more at the plate. No doubt. (To be fair to Williams, he’s been hurt more than ineffective the last two seasons.)

The Far Away Options

Fowler and Frazier (and Wade) are knocking on the door. Mateo is a little further away. Ever further away are Blake Rutherford and Estevan Florial, two high-upside center field prospects. Both figure to start the season at Low-A Charleston. They were teammates with Rookie Pulaski last year, where Rutherford played center field and Florial manned left. (First rounder gets priority.)

It goes without saying there is a lot of risk involved with players this far away from the big leagues. There’s so much that can go wrong these next few years. The obstacles facing Rutherford and Florial are very different too. The expectation is Rutherford will shift to a corner spot at some point as he fills out and adds some bulk. Florial is a graceful defender who happens to be a total hacker at the plate. He might not make enough contact to reach MLB.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Rutherford to be their long-term center fielder. Frazier, Rutherford, and Judge from left to right would be the perfect world long-term outfield picture. The odds are against that actually happening though, mostly because prospects have a way of breaking hearts. Rutherford and Florial are definitely long-term center field candidates. They’re just far away and carry a lot of risk relative to the other guys in this post.

The External Options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

These are the Yankees, and even though they’re trying to scale back spending to get under the luxury tax threshold, you can never really rule them out going outside the organization for help. I, personally, am hoping for a Rob Refsnyder for Mike Trout trade. Fingers crossed. If that doesn’t happen, here are some potential free agent center fielders:

  • After 2017: Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen (if option is declined)
  • After 2018: Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, McCutchen (if option is exercised)

A few of those guys would look pretty good in pinstripes, no? Cain is pretty damn awesome. He’s a fun player and I am pro-fun. Blackmon hit .324/.381/.552 (130 wRC+) with 29 homers and 17 steals last season, you know. Pollock missed a bunch of time with an elbow injury last year, but he’s quietly been one of the best players in baseball the last three or four years.

There’s also Bryce Harper, who will become a free agent following the 2018 season, when he’ll still be only 26 years old. He’s a really good athlete and has played center field for the Nationals at times. Could the Yankees view him as a potential center fielder? That’d be interesting. It’s not like he’d be over the hill or anything. Perhaps Harper in center could work for a few years. Frazier in left, Harper in center, Judge in right? Sign me up.

Anyway, the problem with the non-Harper free agents is the same problem that currently exists with Ellsbury. The Yankees would be paying big money to someone over 30 and in their decline years. Before you know it, we’d be talking about moving Cain or Blackmon or Pollock or whoever to left in favor of a better defensive center fielder. Signing a free agent center fielder is definitely possible. It just seems unlikely given the team’s direction at this point.

The Worst Case Scenario

This is going to sound mean, but the worst case scenario would be keeping Ellsbury in center field through the end of his contract. Maybe he can make it work defensively in his mid-30s like Cameron did once upon a time. He’d be an outlier in that case, but hey, stranger things have happened. I’m sure the Yankees would prefer to keep Ellsbury in center as long as possible too. That’s where he’s most valuable. History suggests his days in center are numbered, however. There simply aren’t many players age 34 and over roaming center nowadays.

* * *

The center field situation is not a pressing matter, fortunately. The Yankees don’t need to figure this out right now. They can let the season play out, see how Ellsbury handles it defensively and how the kids progress in the minors, then figure out what’s next. And maybe nothing is next. Maybe keeping Ellsbury in center through the end of his contract is plausible. The Yankees do have some center field options, both short and long-term, just in case things don’t work out. Sooner or later the team will have to go in a new direction in center field, and odds are it’ll be before the end of Ellsbury’s contract.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

[Read more…]

Update: 2017 Salary Arbitration Filing Day Signings

Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Original Post (Friday, 12pm ET): Today is a significant day on the offseason calendar. The deadline for teams and their arbitration-eligible players to file salary figures for the 2017 season is 1pm ET. The team submits the salary they believe the player deserves while the player submits the salary he feels he deserves. Simple, right?

The Yankees have seven arbitration-eligible players on the roster right now. They started the offseason with nine, but Nathan Eovaldi and Dustin Ackley were released when 40-man roster space was needed back in November. Here are the seven arbitration-eligible players and their projected 2017 salaries, per MLB Trade Rumors:

Most arbitration-eligible players around the league will sign a new contract prior to the filing deadline. Last year the Yankees signed Pineda and Ackley before the deadline, but ended up filing figures with Gregorius, Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, and Aroldis Chapman. It was the first time they failed to sign an eligible player before the filing deadline in several years.

It’s important to note exchanging figures today doesn’t mean the two sides have to go to an arbitration hearing. They can still hammer out a contract of any size at any point. In fact, the Yankees were able to sign Gregorius, Eovaldi, Nova, and Chapman not too long after the filing deadline last year. New York hasn’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang during the 2007-08 offseason.

We’re going to keep track of today’s Yankee-related arbitration news right here, assuming nothing crazy like a long-term extension happens. I’m not counting on it. Make sure you check back for updates often. The deadline is 1pm ET, but the news tends to trickle in all throughout the afternoon.

Update (Friday, 11:39am ET): The Yankees and Gregorius have agreed to a one-year contract worth $5.1M, reports Jon Heyman. Exactly as MLBTR projected. Gregorius made $2.425M last season, which was his first of four years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two. A long-term extension was always a long shot. Didi can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season.

Update (Friday, 12:27pm ET): Romine and the Yankees have an $805,000 agreement in place, says Heyman. Quite a bit below MLBTR’s projection, relatively speaking. Romine made made $556,000 last season. This was his first trip through arbitration.

Update (Friday, 4:52pm ET): Pineda and the Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract worth $7.4M, per Heyman. That’s up from his $4.3M salary in 2016. It pays to be a (middling) starting pitcher. Pineda came in just under his MLBTR projected salary.

Update (Friday, 4:55pm ET): The Yankees have a $2.29M agreement with Warren, according to Josh Norris. Almost exactly what MLBTR projected. He made $1.7M a year ago. Warren will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018 as well.

Update (Friday, 5:30pm ET): The Yankees announced they have agreements in place with both Hicks and Layne. They’re one-year contracts. No word on the money yet though. That leaves Betances as the only unsigned arbitration-eligible player. I’m not surprised. Contract talks weren’t smooth last year.

Update (Friday, 7:13pm ET): Betances filed for $5M and the Yankees countered with $3M, according to Heyman. That’s a pretty significant gap. They might end up going to a hearing. Then again, I said the same thing about Chapman last year, and they hammered out a deal. Get that paper, Dellin.

Update (Friday, 7:56pm ET): Layne received $1.075M, so says Bryan Hoch. He was arbitration-eligible for the first of four times as a Super Two this offseason, so he’s under team control through 2020. Then again, Layne is already 32 and he’s been in four organizations the last five years, so yeah.

Update (Tuesday, 6:00pm ET): The Yankees and Hicks agreed to a $1.35M salary for 2017, reports Ronald Blum. Just a touch below MLBTR’s projection. Hicks made $574,000 last season. He will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2019.

The 2017 season is a make or break year for Aaron Hicks

(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty)

Baseball people and writers tend to overuse certain key phrases. I know I’m guilty of it. “Ace” and “top of the rotation starter” are thrown around quite a bit, especially after a guy has a good month or two. “Five-tool player” is another big one. He’s got three better than average tools? Eh, close enough. He’s a five-tool player. Happens all the time.

Another popular one, and I suppose this isn’t limited to baseball, is “make or break year.” Two years ago folks were saying Gary Sanchez was facing a make or break year, which was preposterous. He was a 21-year-old catcher coming off a .270/.338/.406 (108 wRC+) line at a full season in Double-A. C’mon now. A few weeks ago I saw someone say Yoan Moncada was facing a make or break year. Seriously?

One Yankees who is truly facing a make or break year, meaning what very well might be his last chance to establish himself as an everyday player, is outfielder Aaron Hicks. Hicks turned 27 in October, so he’s not old by any means, but he’s also reached the point where he should have seized a full-time job by now. He’s four seasons and nearly 1,300 plate appearances into his career already. This isn’t a rookie we’re talking about here.

Overall, Hicks was undeniably disappointing in 2016, hitting .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) with eight home runs in 361 plate appearances. He did perform better after Carlos Beltran was traded away and his playing time increased — Hicks hit .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five homers in 129 plate appearances around a hamstring injury after the trade deadline — which was nice to see, but ultimately it doesn’t mean a whole lot.

It’s easy to see why Hicks was a first round pick and why he continues to get chances. The athleticism is obvious, his arm is a rocket, his plate discipline is better than he gets credit for (18.8 K% and 8.3 BB% in 2016), and he’s a switch-hitter who can hit the ball a mile when he connects.

The bad news for Hicks is the Yankees don’t have an opening for him right now. Sure, they could play him everyday in right field next season, but I’m certain the team would rather see Aaron Judge grab that spot and run with it. Judge figures to get playing time priority over Hicks. Jacoby Ellsbury is locked into center field, meaning a Brett Gardner trade may be Hicks’ only path to regular playing time. A trade seems unlikely at the moment.

The raw ability is there and you hate to give up on it. And yet, you can’t wait forever either. There comes a point where a player is what he is, and Hicks is close to reaching that point, if he hasn’t gotten there already. He’s yet to play a full season as an everyday player, and part of that is the way his teams have used him, but he shares the blame too. Had Hicks performed better, the Twins and Yankees would have made more time for him.

Switch-hitters with this kind of pedigree and athleticism will continue to get chances, so it’s not like Hicks will be run out of the league if he doesn’t have a successful 2017. This might be his last chance to stake a claim to an everyday job though, his last chance to show he’s more than a spare part player. The Yankees have several young outfielders ready to break into the show soon, and the Hicks won’t be an obstacle unless things finally click.

“Giving up on a prospect is one of the hardest things to do,” said an executive to Chris Crawford (subs. req’d) recently. “We spend so much time with these players, sometimes we refuse to move these players in trades, and we want these kids to succeed. Sooner or later, however, we have to see them make the necessary adjustments, and if they can’t, we have to move on. It’s a lot easier said than done, but it has to happen.”

Premature Lineup Questions

Ellsbury. (Presswire)
Ellsbury. (Presswire)

Considering it’s not even mid-December yet, the questions that follow are way too premature. To make up for that, I’ll try to avoid things that aren’t likely to stay the same. For example, I highly doubt the Yankees are going to go into the season with, say, Tyler Austin as the number one DH candidate just because they missed out on Carlos Beltran.

Let’s start at the top with two questions:

Will Jacoby Ellsbury keep batting second?

In early July, Joe Girardi made a bit of a lineup switch and had Ellsbury bat second behind Brett Gardner. Taco didn’t sparkle in the two hole, hitting just .244 with a .310 OBP. His walk rate was near 9%, which is encouraging, but it was mostly a forgettable performance. Might it make sense for them to flip places again, especially given Gardner’s shyness with regards to running lately? Granted, Ellsbury isn’t exactly bold on the basepaths anymore, either.

Will Aaron Hicks be platooned more aggressively this season? 

Towards the end of the year, Aaron Hicks woke up and showed flashes of why the Yankees traded for him last offseason. Given that the Yankees have two lefty hitting outfielders in Ellsbury and Gardner, and Hicks is a switch hitter, capable of playing both positions those guys do, how often will he start in one of their places when a lefty is on the mound? Of course, if one of those two is traded, that question is answered a lot more easily.

(AP)
(AP)

What happens if (when) Gary Sanchez struggles? 

Gary Sanchez was a monster in 2016 and we all hope he can be successful again in 2017; he gave us all the reasons he possibly could to believe. But that performance is hard to live up to and he’s going to take some sort of a step back over a full season. If Sanchez struggles behind the plate but maintains his solid hitting, you can always move him to DH. What, though, if the unlikely happens and Sanchez pulls the hitting version of 2008 Phil Hughes/Ian Kennedy? The answer for him is easy: send him back down and let him get right. For the Yankees, though, unless they sign a veteran back up, is less appealing, as it means giving the every day job to Austin Romine.

Who’s going to carry this lineup? 

Perhaps that question is unfair; it’s unlikely that one person on a team will carry a lineup. The right question might be, who’s going to lead this lineup? With Sanchez, the return of Greg Bird, and (hopefully) improvement from Aaron Judge, there’s the potential for big contributions from the young players. Will Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro continue their mild improvements at the plate? Will Ellsbury and Gardner bounce back? Which Chase Headley is going to show up? Depending on the answers to these questions, the Yankees could either be a reasonably solid offense, or they could be a disaster. Likely, they’re somewhere in the middle, but there don’t seem to be any sure things in the lineup.

The Wait For Aaron Hicks To Take A Step Forward [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two years ago the Yankees started their youth movement with an interesting strategy. They targeted talented young players who had fallen out of favor with their current organizations, and bought low on them in trades. That’s how they landed Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi. Dustin Ackley too. You win some, you lose some.

The Yankees employed a similar strategy last offseason — you could argue the Aroldis Chapman deal falls under that umbrella, though he was an established veteran at the time of the trade — and it landed them switch-hitting outfielder Aaron Hicks in a trade with the Twins. John Ryan Murphy went to Minnesota. Hicks was slated to serve as New York’s heavily used fourth outfielder. He would rotate around the three outfield spots and given the veterans rest. It never worked out.

Stuck On The Bench

The Yankees stunk in April. They were bad. Really bad. They won only eight of their first 24 games, mostly because they couldn’t generate offense. The Yankees scored only 82 runs in those 24 games, or 3.42 per. Yikes. Because runs were so hard to come by, Joe Girardi stuck with his veteran outfielders. The trio of Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran started 15 of those first 24 games. Hicks started eight of them.

In those eight games, the now-27-year-old Hicks went 2-for-26 (.077) with no extra-base hits and only two walks. I guess the good news is he only struck out three times, so he was putting the ball in play. It was only a matter of time until the hits dropped in, right? Right??? Well, I guess so. From May 4th through May 25th, Hicks hit .258/.319/.403 (91 wRC+) with two homers in 73 plate appearances and 21 games. His first homer as a Yankee was kind of a big one.

Hicks was able to get regular playing time during that three-week stretch thanks to injuries to Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) and Ellsbury (hip). Beltran shifted to DH and Hicks took over in the outfield. When he wasn’t playing regularly — I mean doing more than replacing Beltran for defense in the late innings — he didn’t hit. When he played regularly, he did hit. Coincidence? Eh, maybe. I don’t think so.

Once Ellsbury and A-Rod returned, Hicks went right back to the bench. From May 26th through July 22nd, the final day of the “Alex Rodriguez, Everyday Player” era, Hicks started 27 of the team’s 50 games, so he was basically a half-time player. Beltran’s hamstring injury in June helped open some playing time there, so it stands to reason that if Beltran had stayed healthy, Hicks would have played even less.

Hicks hit only .197/.261/.301 (48 wRC+) in the first half and Girardi pretty clearly grew frustrated with his lack of production. “Hicks needs to relax, too, I think, to get going. He’s a kid that’s used to playing every day. He’s played a lot but he hasn’t played every day,” said the manager in June. It was a Catch-22. Hicks wasn’t playing because he didn’t hit and he wasn’t hitting because he didn’t play, in theory.

Finally, A Chance To Play

After the Yankees traded away Beltran at the deadline, Girardi made an effort to get Hicks into the lineup more often, even after Aaron Judge had been recalled. Hicks started 23 of the team’s 28 games in August while playing all three outfield spots. Gardner’s sore ankle opened up some playing time as did the club’s sudden willingness to sit veterans for younger players. Gardner and Ellsbury both saw time on the bench in August.

Hicks went down with a hamstring injury of his own in late-August and was unable to return until late-September, when he season was nearly over. He played every day down the stretch because Beltran was gone and Judge went down with his oblique injury. Following the trade deadline, Hicks was very close to an everyday player, and during that time he hit .271/.333/.424 (105 wRC+) with five homers in 129 plate appearances and 37 games around the hamstring injury.

One of those five homers was a thoroughly satisfying go-ahead two-run homer against the Blue Jays on September 26th, the final road game of the season. Benches cleared (twice!) earlier in the game because of the J.A. Happ/Luis Severino retaliation silliness, and Mark Teixeira had just tied the game with a ninth inning blast against Jason Grilli. Hicks went deep a few batters later to give New York the lead. He crushed a hanger, clapped loudly because he knew it was gone, then trotted around the bases.

Teixeira and Hicks pimping clutch ninth inning homers against the Blue Jays. What a time to be alive.

That strong finish in August and September brought Hicks’ final season batting line to .217/.281/.336 (64 wRC+) in 361 plate appearances, which is still bad. Really bad. I’m one of those folks who thinks Hicks would thrive with more playing time, but still. You can’t do that, dude.

Take a look at Hicks’ offensive production as the season progressed. It’s easy to see when he got regular at-bats (May, then August and September) and when he was used sparingly off the bench (the rest of the season):

Aaron Hicks wRC+

Hicks came to the Yankees as a switch-hitter with a reputation for being better against left-handed pitchers. The exact opposite was true in 2016. He hit .249/.318/.373 (86 wRC+) against righties, which is barely adequate, and .161/.213/.271 (25 wRC+) against lefties, which is terrible. Hicks didn’t hit his first home run against a southpaw until June 24th, the team’s 72nd game of the season, and he didn’t get his second until August 5th, their 109th game. Yikes.

There is no other way to slice it: Hicks was awful this past season. Inexcusably so, really. He was primed for a breakout season and instead fell flat on his face. The only thing keeping the trade from being a disaster is Murphy somehow being worse than Hicks this year (4 wRC+!). Maybe regular playing time would have helped. I think it would have. But that’s not an excuse. Hicks had his role and didn’t adapt to it. He would have received more playing time had he earned it, but he didn’t.

A Good Defender Who Looks Bad

Back during his days as a prospect — Hicks was a really good prospect once upon a time, he was on Baseball America’s annual top 100 list four times and peaked as high as 19th — the scouting reports said Hicks was an exceptional defensive player. Baseball America called him a “gliding runner” who “possesses plenty of range” and is capable of “providing premium defense in center” in 2013, the last time he was prospect eligible. Everyone loved his glove.

This year we saw a player who took some circuitous routes in the outfield but generally made every catch. There were a few instances in which he broke back instead of breaking forward (and vice versa), but again, he made the catch. DRS (+4), UZR (+4.8), Total Zone (+9), and FRAA (+1.6) all rated him as above-average in the field. And yet, those bad first steps are unsettling. Even if he makes the catch, they just look bad, you know?

There is one aspect of Hicks’ defense that is an undeniable strength: his arm. It’s one of the best in baseball, easily. In fact, Hicks uncorked the fastest outfield throw in the Statcast era back in April. To the action footage:

Hicks had only three outfield assists this season, two fewer than Ellsbury (!), but that’s terribly misleading. Runners rarely tested his arm. It’s a Yadier Molina arm in the outfield. Runners don’t bother trying to stealing against Molina because his arm is so strong. This year runners didn’t even bother to try to run on Hicks because they know he has a cannon. He shut the running game down without even making throws.

Hicks in RF: 62.1% hold rate (47.0% league average)
Hicks in CF: 53.6% hold rate (44.3% league average)
Hicks in LF: 69.2% hold rate (63.5% league average)

Hold rate is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the rate at which runners stayed put despite having the opportunity to take the extra base on a ball hit to the outfield. Like a runner on second not moving to third on a fly ball. Or a runner not going first-to-third on a single to right. That sort of thing. Hicks held runners at a rate far better than the league average at all three outfield positions. His arm is so great he rarely has to use it. It’s the ultimate compliment. Runners don’t even challenge him.

Outlook for 2017

Gosh, I don’t know. I could see any one of a number of things happening with Hicks next season. I could see him starting the year as the fourth outfielder again. I could see him starting in left field if Gardner is traded. I could see him starting in right if Judge struggles in camp. I could see him in a platoon. I could see him getting traded. The possibilities are endless.

I wouldn’t necessarily call 2017 a make or break year for Hicks, but he’s entering a very critical phase of his career. He just turned 27 and it’s time to turn his obvious natural gifts into consistent production. The Yankees hope it happens it with them. It might not. Either way, Hicks has played parts of four seasons in the show now and he has close to 1,300 big league plate appearances under his belt. It’s time to take that next step.

MLBTR’s projected 2017 arbitration salaries and the Dellin Betances outlier

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

With the 2016 season now complete, we can begin to look forward to the offseason and the 2017 Yankees, and this winter a lot of attention will be paid to arbitration-eligible players. The Yankees have a lot of them. Nine, in fact. Some of them are pretty important parts of the team too.

Yesterday Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors published his annual arbitration salary projections for next season. Swartz’s model is pretty darn accurate and it gets more and more precise with each passing season. The numbers might not be exact, but they’re usually in the ballpark. Here’s what Swartz’s model projects for the Yankees’ nine arbitration-eligible players.

That’s $32.8M worth of arbitration salaries next year, which works out to a $14.6M raise over what those nine players earned this past season. As a reminder, players need three years of service time (3.000) to qualify for arbitration in most cases. Some, like Gregorius and Layne, are arbitration-eligible four times as a Super Two. The Super Two cutout this year is approximately 2.127, according to Steve Adams. That doesn’t really affect the Yankees. Anyway, here are some thoughts on the projected arbitration salaries.

1. The Betances projection seems light. The arbitration process is pretty archaic. Old school stats like ERA and saves — especially saves — matter most. Betances has been a setup man for the majority of his career, so he doesn’t have those big money making saves totals, which is going to hurt his arbitration case. We all know Dellin has been one of the two or three best relievers in baseball since Opening Day 2014 though.

Swartz’s model has trouble with elite players with unprecedented resumes. Tim Lincecum damn near broke the thing when he went into arbitration with two Cy Youngs a few years ago. Betances leads all relievers in innings and strikeouts over the last three seasons by a lot. He struck out 392 batters from 2014-16. Next most by a reliever? Andrew Miller with 326. Yeah. Look at the five highest strikeout totals by a reliever the last three years:

  1. 2014 Betances: 135
  2. 2015 Betances: 131
  3. 2016 Betances: 126
  4. 2016 Miller: 123
  5. 2015 Aroldis Chapman: 115

Yeah. Betances is also a three-time All-Star. Do you know how many other relievers have been to the All-Star Game each of the last three years? None. Not one. Dellin’s the only one. The All-Star Game selections plus the bulk inning and strikeout totals mean Betances is going into arbitration with far more earning potential than most setup men. He could break Swartz’s model, so to speak.

As best I can tell, the record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible reliever is $6.25M by Jonathan Papelbon back in the day. The lack of saves will probably prevent Betances from breaking Papelbon’s record, though I do think he’s going to wind up with a salary closer to Papelbon’s than the projected salary above. Dellin isn’t a normal reliever and projecting his arbitration salary with a one size fits all model probably won’t work.

2. Eovaldi and Ackley are goners. Swartz’s model projects no raise for Ackley. He made $3.2M this year and the model has him making $3.2M next year. That’s what happens when you barely play and barely hit before suffering a season-ending injury. Given the salary and the lack of production, Ackley is a prime non-tender candidate this offseason. The Yankees might release him after the World Series to clear 40-man roster space rather than wait until the December 2nd tender deadline.

As for Eovaldi, the model projects a $1.9M raise, though that’s pretty irrelevant. He recently underwent major elbow surgery, including his second Tommy John surgery, so he’s going to miss the entire 2017 season. There’s no sense in paying Eovaldi that much money to not pitch next season, especially when he’ll be a free agent next winter. The business side of baseball can be cruel. Eovaldi is hurt and soon he’s going to be unemployed too. The Yankees will non-tender him. Brian Cashman all but confirmed it.

A non-tender wouldn’t necessarily mean Eovaldi’s career in pinstripes is over. The Yankees could re-sign him to a smaller contract with an eye on 2018. They’ve done that before, sign injured pitchers to a two-year deal and rehab them in year one. Think Jon Lieber and Andrew Bailey and David Aardsma. The second Tommy John surgery is much riskier than the first, but with pitching so in demand, it’s probably worth exploring a two-year deal with Eovaldi. Just not at the projected salary.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

3. Extension time for Gregorius? Gregorius made $2.425M this past season and projects to make $5.1M next season, which is a $2.675M raise. His salary projects to more than double. Didi will be in his second of four arbitration years as a Super Two next year, so if we apply similar raises going forward, we get $7.775M in 2017 and $10.45M in 2018. That’s a real quick and dirty way of estimating his earning potential the next three years.

That rough estimate puts Gregorius at $23.325M from 2016-18 before he hits free agency. Is it worth it to explore a long-term extension this offseason? It is if you think his power breakout this past season was real, and there are reasons to believe it is. Gregorius is only 26, remember. He’s entering what should be the best years of his career. A four-year deal that guarantees him $35M or so seems worthwhile for the Yankees. We’re talking about a prime age player at a premium position.

At the same time, the Yankees have a ton of shortstops in the minors, namely Tyler Wade in Double-A plus both Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo in High-A. I wouldn’t worry about that though. Gregorius is a talented young player at a hard to fill position and those guys are worth locking up. If there’s a logjam at shortstop when Wade and Torres and Mateo and whoever are ready, great! That’s a good problem.

4. Big Mike‘s big salary. Being a starting pitcher is pretty good when arbitration time arrives. Even mediocre starters like Pineda get hefty raises. He made $4.3M this past season and projects for $7.8M next year, so we’re talking about a $3.5M raise. That’s despite a 6-12 record and a 4.82 ERA (90 ERA+) in 175.2 innings. That stuff matters in arbitration.

Pineda’s raise has more to do with his 207 strikeouts and AL leading 10.6 K/9. And really, $7.8M is still below market value for a pitcher of Pineda’s caliber. Guys like him will run you $10M to $12M or so in free agency. Probably more these days. It would be worth asking Pineda and his representatives what it would take to get an extension done this offseason, simply because the upcoming free agent pitching classes are so weak.

5. The remain projections are fair. The projections for Warren ($2.3M), Hicks ($1.4M), Layne ($1.2M), and Romine ($900,000) seem just about right. Not high enough to consider a non-tender and not low enough to see it as a bargain. That could change in a year, but right now, they’re fair. Weirdly enough, it wouldn’t surprise me if all four of those guys are on the 2017 Opening Day roster and it wouldn’t surprise me if all four are jettisoned in the offseason. I feel like we’re in for some surprises this winter.