With Aaron Hicks on the mend, the Yankees will soon have to make some roster and playing time decisions

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

Later tonight nominal fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks will start a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton. He’s been sidelined since June 26th with a right oblique strain. Oblique injuries are really tricky. They’re very easy to reaggravate. And because Hicks is a switch-hitter, he and the Yankees had to be extra careful during his recovery and rehab.

Prior to the injury the 27-year-old Hicks was enjoying a breakout season, a breakout season that had him in the All-Star Game conversation. He hit .290/.398/.515 (145 wRC+) with ten homers and nearly as many walks (15.3%) as strikeouts (17.4%) before getting hurt. Among the 281 players with at least 200 plate appearances this season, Hicks ranks 14th in OBP and 19th in wRC+. He was awesome.

Since Hicks got hurt, a whole lot has changed. The Yankees lost for the seventh time in nine games to blow their division lead the day Hicks got hurt. Now the Yankees have won seven of their last nine games to climb back in the AL East race. They’re still only a half-game back following last night’s loss. Also, Jacoby Ellsbury returned from the disabled list and has since been relegated to fourth outfielder duty, both by his play and Clint Frazier‘s play.

Simply put, when Hicks got hurt, the Yankees were trending down and it was not pretty. Now, with Hicks nearing a return, the Yankees are winning games and they’ve added several new players to the roster. Frazier came up from the system and all the trades brought in Todd Frazier, Jaime Garcia, Sonny Gray, David Robertson, and Tommy Kahnle. Hicks is returning to a much better and more formidable team.

Because he’s missed more than a month and because he’s a switch-hitter with two swings to hone, my guess is Hicks will need more than one or two rehab games. The plan might be to have him rejoin the team next Friday at the start of the next homestand. That would give him eight days worth of minor league games. Hopefully that’s enough. We’ll see. Whenever Hicks is ready to come back, the Yankees will have to make some roster decisions.

Opening A Roster Spot

If Clint goes down, we riot. (Elsa/Getty)
If Clint goes down, we riot. (Elsa/Getty)

At the moment the Yankees are carrying a three-man bench with a backup catcher (Austin Romine), a backup infielder (Tyler Wade), and a backup outfielder (Ellsbury). They’re also carrying six starters and seven relievers, and for at least one turn through the rotation, the Yankees will use all six starters. They say they’re going back to a five-man rotation after that. Does that mean Jordan Montgomery to Triple-A? Garcia to the bullpen? Both are possible.

The easiest way to open a roster spot for Hicks would be sending down that 13th pitcher (whoever it is) and getting back to a normal four-man bench. As much as you may want them to, the Yankees are absolutely not going to release Ellsbury this year. At the very least, the Yankees are going to wait until the offseason to see whether they can unload him in a salary dump trade first. Saving even $4M or $5M a year on his contract is better than nothing.

The other option, which Brian Cashman has floated, is sending down Frazier. Man, if that happens, I will be Mad Online. I can’t see it happening at this point. Frazier has been productive and the Yankees are in it to win it now. You don’t go out and trade all those prospects only to turn around and send down Frazier, who has had an impact in his short time as a big leaguer. That’s not putting the best roster on the field.

Remember, once upon a time the Nationals said they were calling up Bryce Harper only temporarily. Then he hit the snot out of the ball for a few weeks and they had to keep him around. Frazier is not Harper, but he is really good, and he is forcing the team’s hand here. He’s done enough to stick. The Yankees may have planned to send Frazier down when Hicks is ready, but plans have to be flexible. Plans change.

Now, that all said, one thing to keep in mind here is that September isn’t far away. Assuming Hicks returns for the start of the homestand next Friday — again, that’s just my assumption, not something the Yankees have confirmed — the Yankees could send Frazier down for three weeks, then bring him right back when rosters expand on September 1st. Reevaluate the roster situation at that time to figure out the best outfield alignment. It’s an option. I hate it, but it’s an option.

So, as things standing right now, the best way to get Hicks back onto the roster is to send down that 13th pitcher, likely either Montgomery or Chasen Shreve. No one else is going down. The other options are release Ellsbury (nope) or send down Frazier (please no). An injury could change things — Matt Holliday back on the disabled list with his mystery illness? — but right now, I’d say it’s drop the 13th pitcher or bust for Hicks.

Finding Playing Time

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

This interests me much more than opening a roster spot. Hicks was out of this world before the injury, and because of that, he belongs in the lineup once he gets healthy. So does Frazier. So does Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge. I know Judge has slumped since the All-Star break, but does anyone actually want him out of the lineup? No way. He could snap out of it at any moment. No one busts out of a slump sitting on the bench.

As it stands the Yankees have four outfielders who deserve to play everyday (Hicks, Frazier, Gardner, Judge) and a fifth outfielder on the 29th richest contract in baseball history. I’m glad the Yankees and Joe Girardi have reduced Ellsbury’s playing time. It needed to happen. Now they’re looking at the possibility of completely burying Ellsbury on the bench as the seldom used fifth outfielder. The right move? Sure. An awkward situation? Yup.

Four outfielders who deserve to play means the return of the outfield rotation, I assume. Gardner will sit against lefties and I guess Frazier and Judge will take turns sitting against tough righties. Hicks will get days off here and there as well. All four of those guys should play as much as possible, and it’s up to Girardi to make it work. Ellsbury will have to be limited to pinch-runner and spot start duty. There’s really no other way to use him.

The wildcard here is the DH spot. Holliday has been pretty terrible for weeks now. If he continues to be terrible, it’s entirely possible the Yankees will scale back on his playing time, freeing up DH at-bats for the four regular outfielders and Ellsbury. “We continue to talk about it … (He) has had some good at-bats, but he really hasn’t gotten back on track. I think he will but it hasn’t happened yet,” said Girardi to George King when asked about Holliday’s slump recently.

The best case scenario is having too many good players. The Yankees don’t want to sit Holliday to open DH at-bats for other players. They want Holliday to mash, Hicks to mash, and Judge and Frazier and Gardner to mash. And they want Ellsbury to mash too. The more good players, the better. Take the depth and the production and enjoy it while it lasts. Realistically, that won’t happen. It’s very rare that everyone is hitting at the same time. That’s baseball.

Once Hicks returns, the Yankees will have to go back to the four-man outfield rotation, and maybe make it a five-man outfield/DH rotation should Holliday not get back on track. There’s really no other way to do it. None of the three current outfielders deserve to be taken out of the lineup, yet Hicks played too well before his injury to go to the bench. The Yankees have to play him to see whether that was for real. Early season Hicks was the best non-Judge hitter on the team, remember.

* * *

For now, Hicks’ return is at least a few days away and maybe more than a week away. Tonight will only be his first rehab game after more than a month on the shelf. A lot could change between now and the time Hicks is ready to be activated. Someone could get hurt, Frazier could play his way down to Triple-A, someone could get traded … who knows? Hopefully the Yankees have to make some tough decisions when Hicks returns. That’ll mean everyone is playing well and no one deserves to lose playing time or a roster spot.

Game 105: Win Another Series

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The post-trade deadline Yankees opened their post-trade deadline schedule with another win last night, their seventh in the last eight games. Remember when the Yankees couldn’t buy a series win? They’ve now won three straight series and have a chance to win their fourth straight tonight. Things turned around in a hurry.

With the trade deadline in the rear-view mirror, we’ve entered the dog days of summer, the daily grind of getting through August before the races really heat up in September. That doesn’t make these games any less important, of course. Every game you win in August is one less game you have to win in September. Here is the Tigers’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. LF Clint Frazier
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. DH Matt Holliday
  7. 1B Chase Headley
  8. 3B Todd Frazier
  9. 2B Tyler Wade
    LHP CC Sabathia

Nice warm day in New York today. A bit cloudy now but no rain or anything to worry about. Tonight’s game will begin a little after 7pm ET and YES will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Greg Bird (ankle) is progressing well following surgery and he had his stitches taken out today. The hope is he’ll begin baseball activities in the near future … Aaron Hicks (oblique) and Tyler Austin (hamstring) will begin minor league rehab assignments with Triple-A Scranton tomorrow … Starlin Castro (hamstring) has not started running yet, in case you missed it earlier.

Roster Moves: The Yankees sent down Jonathan Holder and Garrett Cooper following last night’s game, the team announced. That cleared roster space for Jaime Garcia and Sonny Gray, who joined the team today. If you’re into uniform numbers, Garcia will wear No. 34 and Gray will wear No. 55. Both wore No. 54 with their former teams, though that’s Aroldis Chapman‘s number.

Rotation Update: The Yankees will use a six-man rotation this week. Sabathia starts tonight, Masahiro Tanaka starts tomorrow, Gray starts Thursday, Garcia starts Friday, Jordan Montgomery starts Saturday, and Luis Severino starts Sunday. They plan to go back to a five-man rotation after that. It’s possible Garcia and Gray could be flip-flopped. Depends whether Gray’s plane lands in time today for him to do his between-starts work.

Game 103: Last Game Before The Trade Deadline

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Take a good look at the Yankees roster. Chances are it’ll look a bit different next time they play a game. This afternoon’s series finale with the Rays is the Yankees’ final game before Monday afternoon’s trade deadline, and already they’ve have made one deal today. They picked up Jaime Garcia from the Twins for pitching prospects Zack Littell and Dietrich Enns. A new starter was very necessary and the Yankees landed one.

More important than the looming trade deadline right now is this afternoon’s game. The Yankees have won the first three games of this four-game series to increase their lead over the Rays from 1.5 games to 4.5 games. That’s huge. Creating some distance in the standings is always appreciated. The Yankees have won six straight games overall, so let’s take a seven-game winning streak into the deadline, shall we? Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. LF Clint Frazier
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 1B Chase Headley
  7. 3B Todd Frazier
  8. 2B Ronald Torreyes
  9. C Austin Romine
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

Pretty much a perfect afternoon for baseball in the Bronx. There’s not a cloud in the sky and the high temperature is 82 degrees. Couldn’t ask for a better day to spend at the ballpark. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET and YES will have the broadcast. Enjoy the day and the game.

Roster Update: Earlier today the Yankees sent down Caleb Smith and called up Chasen Shreve, so they have a fresh arm in the bullpen and a lefty. I imagine Shreve will be sent down when Garcia reports, which will probably be tomorrow. Garcia, by the way, is tentatively scheduled to make his first start Thursday. The Yankees say they are not considering a six-man rotation at this time. Duh.

Injury Updates: Aaron Hicks (oblique) will begin a minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Scranton on Wednesday. He’s been taking full batting practice from both sides of the plate … Buster Olney says the Yankees believe Greg Bird (ankle) could be back by late-August. No offense to Bird, but I’m going to take the over on his rehab timetable. This seems like the Yankees posturing during trade talks for a first baseman more than anything.

Game 101: Make It Five Straight

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The Yankees have won four straight games and six of their last seven, so things are finally starting to look up after that month of misery. Last night’s win was a big one. The Yankees got a gift that allowed them to tie the game in the ninth, and they took advantage by going on to win in extras. A big win made even bigger by the fact it was against an AL East rival and postseason spot competitor.

On paper, tonight’s pitching matchup is a mismatch. The Rays are starting rookie Austin Pruitt, who got knocked around pretty good (including by the Yankees) in his first MLB go-round, in place of the injured Jake Odorizzi. The Yankees have their Opening Day starter on the bump. Hopefully the Yankees can jump out and take command of this game early, then cruise the rest of the way. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. LF Clint Frazier
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. DH Matt Holliday
  7. 1B Chase Headley
  8. 3B Todd Frazier
  9. 2B Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

It is cool and cloudy in New York this evening, and there is some rain in the forecast, though not until much later tonight. They’ll have no trouble getting the game in. Tonight’s game will begin a little after 7pm ET and you’ll be able to watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Aaron Hicks (oblique) hit and ran the bases today, as scheduled. He’s scheduled to begin a minor league rehab assignment next week, though it’s unclear how many games he’ll need. Hicks is a switch-hitter and they need to make sure he’s good to go from both sides of the plate … Judge, obviously, is fine after chipping a tooth during last night’s walk-off celebration. He had it fixed today.

Game 100: Back on Track

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

It looks like the Yankees are finally starting to right ship. They played terrible baseball for a good month there, but they’ve now won six of their last eight games and are a healthy 8-5 in the second half. The bullpen is much improved and the offense is providing enough runs. My guess is the Yankees will be an even better team after Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline.

Anyway, the Rays are in town for a really important four-game series this weekend. They’re a game and a half back of the Yankees in the standings, so they’re a direct competitor for the AL East title and a wildcard spot. This weekend is a good chance to create some distance with Tampa. Burying them would be preferable, but one game at a time. Here is the Rays’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. DH Clint Frazier
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. C Gary Sanchez
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 1B Chase Headley
  7. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  8. 3B Todd Frazier
  9. 2B Tyler Wade
    LHP CC Sabathia

Now, the bad news: there’s rain in the forecast tonight. It’s supposed to start right around first pitch and continue until the wee hours of the morning. A delay or an outright postponement is a very real possibility. Hope for the best. Tonight’s game is scheduled to begin a little after 7pm ET and you’ll be able to watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Aaron Hicks (oblique) and Tyler Austin (hamstring) are tentatively scheduled to begin minor league rehab assignments once this homestand ends next week … Starlin Castro (hamstring) is in wait-and-see mode. They’re going to reevaluate him in a few days and determine whether he can resume baseball activities.

Game 98: Back Home, Finally

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

For the first time in 16 days, the Yankees are back home at Yankee Stadium. The All-Star break and a long eleven-game, ten-day road trip through three time zones kept them away from home for a while. Good to have baseball back in the Bronx. I’ve missed it. The Yankees will be here for the next nine days.

The Reds are in town for a quick little two-game interleague series, and while I know any team can beat any other team on any given night in this league, this feels like the kind of series the Yankees really should dominate. The Reds have lost 28 of their 40 last games and like 75% of the roster could be traded at any moment. Drop the hammer. Here is the Reds’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. RF Clint Frazier
  3. RF Aaron Judge
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 1B Chase Headley
  7. 3B Todd Frazier
  8. 2B Tyler Wade
  9. C Austin Romine
    LHP Jordan Montgomery

It is cool and cloudy in New York this evening, though there’s no rain in the forecast, and that’s all that matters. Tonight’s game will begin a little after 7pm ET and you can watch on WPIX. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Aaron Hicks (oblique) will hit in the cage for the first time tomorrow. There is no firm date for him to begin a minor league rehab assignment … Tyler Austin (hamstring) has started running and will start swinging a bat soon.

Rotation Update: Caleb Smith will remain in the rotation, Joe Girardi said. His next start is scheduled for Saturday against the Rays. The Yankees are said to be looking for another starter in advance of the trade deadline, though even if they swing a deal, Smith may still need to make that start because whoever they get might not be lined up.

2017 Midseason Review: The Outfield

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Going into the spring, the Yankees had two spots claimed in the outfield and one up for grabs.

Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner were the veteran holdovers from last season while the pair of Aarons — Hicks and Judge — battled for right field. Both hit quite well in the spring, so the job went to the prospect with higher promise — and what promise it has been!

Perhaps the best way to look at this outfield is going month-to-month, as things changed … other than Aaron Judge‘s dominance.

April: Judge and Hicks emerge

As I’m sure everyone remembers, Judge was a monster in April. He smacked 10 home runs, batting .303/.411/.750 (198 wRC+) for the month. Somehow, that wasn’t his peak for the season. That slugging percentage should be a little higher because of that “triple” against the Cardinals. It actually took him five starts to hit a home run and he’s taken off from there.

Hicks, on the other hand, was the fourth outfielder, so he took a lot of pinch hitting duty early on. He hit two home runs vs. the Rays on Apr. 13 and proved effective in the 57 plate appearances he received. His .295/.429/614 (173 wRC+) slash line is his best for a month this year.

Gardner and Ellsbury each got off to slow starts, which allowed Hicks to get into the lineup more often. They combined for 11 stolen bases (and fielded their positions well, like both Aarons), but had 78 and 99 wRC+ respectively. Gardner was slowed by a collision at first base against Tampa Bay while Ellsbury met expectations while hitting a key grand slam against Baltimore.

Signature moments: I’ll nominate two: Judge’s birthday, when he homered and dove into the stands for a catch vs. Boston, and Hicks’ two-homer game against the Rays, when he provided all of the offense the Yanks needed.

May: Judge (and Gardner) surge

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The fair assumption was that Judge would cool off in May. His OPS did fall… but from 1.161 to 1.084. Another seven homers, just insane stuff. Hits first grand slam came late in the month and he followed with a Memorial Day homer next day. He actually hit for more average in May yet with a little less power.

Meanwhile, Gardner went on a power surge starting with a two-homer game vs. Toronto May 2, his first of two multi-homer games in the month. He had perhaps the most clutch homer of the season vs. the Cubs three days later. His nine homers for the month were more than he had all of 2016.

Hicks really hit his stride, earning some playing time over Ellsbury before Taco’s injury. Not quite as good as April overall, but he also proved his first month wasn’t a fluke. He had seven hits over the first two games of the Cubs series and 10 hits over a four-day span.

Even Taco hit better in May with a .288/.373/.442 (120 wRC+) line. Just one HR, but five doubles. Unfortunately, he got hurt catching a ball on May 24 and was out for over a month.

Signature moment: Easily Gardner vs. the Cubs. Down to the final strike, Gardner erased a 2-0 deficit with a game-winning three-run shot. That’s a very literal game changer.

June: How is Judge still doing this!?!

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Judge literally got on base every single game in June. That shouldn’t be possible. But it was. That 495-foot homer was absurd. He struck out 39 times, but walked 30(!). Another 10 home runs. Ho hum.

Like Ellsbury, Hicks got hurt making a catch and it threw a wrench into the outfield situation. He had slumped later in the month, but was still walking and getting on base. Ellsbury’s return was quickened by the loss of Hicks.

Gardner cooled off significantly (.239/.296/.389 for June). With his power falling off, he got back to stealing bases with five and continued to provide solid fielding in left and center.

Off the bench, the Yankees went to Mason Williams and Rob Refsnyder, the former who would be DFA’d. You surely remember the Dustin Fowler injury…

Signature moment: Is there any question? It’s Judge vs. the Orioles. A 495-foot homer is impressive in BP, let alone in game. And he followed it with a lightning fast shot to right-center.

July: Enter Clint Frazier

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Since returning at the end of June, Ellsbury is batting just .208/.321/.208. No power and a lot of weak grounders to second. Judge, of course, is still doing Judge things, though his on-base streak came to an end on July 1. He also won the Home Run Derby, which was cool. Gardner picked up just five hits (no HR) in 37 plate appearances.

The main bright spot in the eight games before the ASG was Clint Frazier. Frazier has been a revelation with his bat speed. He could force his way onto the roster post-Hicks return, although the outfield will be quite crowded if everyone stays healthy. Six of his seven hits have gone for extra bases and he’s slugging .875 through 24 at-bats. I like it!

Signature moment: Frazier’s walk-off vs. the Brewers. He fastball hunted against All-Star Corey Knebel and launched one to left for the win. Well done.

With Judge, Hicks, Ellsbury, Gardner and Frazier all starting quality outfielders, the Yankees have some of the most enviable outfield depth in baseball. That crew includes the MVP so far, a young player having a career year, a vet with a power resurgence and a 22-year-old just tapping into potential. It’s been a good 3 1/2 months for the Bombers OF and it should be a good overall season, too.