Spring Training 2019 has not been kind to the Yankees. They lost Luis Severino to a shoulder injury that will sideline him until at least early-May, and over the weekend top prospect Estevan Florial broke his wrist crashing into the center field wall. That’s on top of Didi Gregorius and Jordan Montgomery rehabbing their new elbow ligaments.
The Yankees have also lost center fielder Aaron Hicks to a back issue that, to date, has required two cortisone shots and kept him out of Grapefruit League action since March 1st. Over the weekend Aaron Boone finally admitted what had become increasingly obvious: Hicks will have to begin the regular season on the injured list.
“He could avoid a full (injured list) stay at the big league level because obviously we can backdate him,” Boone said to Coley Harvey. “There’s still a little bit in there, and we just want to make sure this isn’t something that lingers during the season. Hopefully this will knock it out once and for all, but it will slow him down by a couple of days.”
Brett Gardner is the obvious candidate to play center field while Hicks is sidelined and, over the weekend, Tyler Wade played center in anticipation of backup duty. He’ll see more time out there this week. Clint Frazier could be a center field candidate as well, though that seems unlikely. He’s probably headed to Triple-A Scranton for regular at-bats after missing much of last season.
An outside acquisition can’t be ruled out but free agency has little to offer. Maybe a veteran on a minor league deal (Peter Bourjos?) or an out-of-options outfielder (Aaron Altherr?) shakes loose over the next few days. That’s the best hope right now. “I still don’t believe Hicks is going to miss that much time. I feel like we can handle it internally right now,” Boone said to Bryan Hoch.
Although carrying an extra outfielder (Billy Burns?) while Hicks is out is the easy and straightforward move, it is sounding more and more likely Greg Bird will take his spot on the roster. At least to me, it’s felt like the Yankees have been hoping to find a way to carry Bird and Luke Voit on the Opening Day roster, and now they have one.
“I think we’re looking at two impact players,” Boone said to Hoch regarding his two first basemen. “There’s probably more of a case now that both could be part of things. But I know that I’m looking at two really good players.”
Carrying two first base only players with an eight-man bullpen and three-man bench hardly qualifies as ideal roster construction. Injuries usually create roster headaches though, and with Hicks sidelined and Frazier looking awfully rusty this spring, Bird becomes the best Opening Day roster option almost by default. Let’s talk this out a bit.
1. The Hicks injury opens a lineup spot. With Hicks out, Gardner moves to center field and Giancarlo Stanton moves to left field. That’s the most likely arrangement. That opens up the DH spot and thus a regular lineup spot for Bird and his left-handed bat, something the Yankees could use (assuming he actually hits). A possible lineup:
- CF Brett Gardner
- RF Aaron Judge
- LF Giancarlo Stanton
- DH Luke Voit
- 3B Miguel Andujar
- C Gary Sanchez
- 1B Greg Bird
- 2B Gleyber Torres
- SS Troy Tulowitzki
That lineup is quite fungible. Boone could flip Gardner and Torres, or Sanchez and Torres, or Andujar and Torres, or Sanchez and Bird, or Judge and Stanton. Other than Judge and Stanton hitting eighth and ninth, I’m not sure there’s a “wrong” batting order with those players. Deep lineup is deep.
Point is, the Hicks injury opens a lineup spot and pushes Stanton into the outfield. The Yankees could give all those suddenly available DH at-bats to Bird, though I imagine DJ LeMahieu will be a factor as well. Replacing Hicks in center field is only part of it. They also have to replace him in the lineup, and Bird helps do that.
(Earlier this spring Boone said he considers Bird a better defender than Voit — my eyes agree with that — so chances are it would be Bird at first base and Voit at DH on days both are in the lineup.)
2. Wade’s versatility becomes that much more important. With Bird and Voit, the Yankees would be dedicating two of their 12 position player spots to first basemen. The Cardinals threw Voit in left field for a few games in Triple-A the last two years but nah, I don’t see that as a realistic option and neither do the Yankees given the fact they haven’t bothered to try it this spring. Could you imagine Voit in the outfield? Oy vey.
Wade seemed to have a bench spot locked down before the Hicks injury grew into something more than a minor nuisance. Since he can play the outfield, the Yankees can count on him as their fourth outfielder temporarily. If Wade couldn’t play the outfield, they’d have no choice but to use his roster spot on another outfielder with both Voit and Bird on the roster. That ability to play everywhere helps the Yankees and keeps Wade on the roster.
3. What happens when Hicks returns? Worry about it when the time comes. It’s a cop out, I know, but it’s the correct answer. These things always have a way of taking care of themselves. By time Hicks returns, there’s a chance someone else will have played his way down to Triple-A, making the roster decisions easy. Or the Yankees could’ve lost another player to injury. That’s baseball.
Boone said Hicks could be back for the second series of the regular season, but let’s be real here, they’ve underestimated the Hicks injury every step of the way. This went from “he’s day-to-day” in early-March to “two cortisone shots and he’s going to miss Opening Day” real quick. I’ll believe Hicks will be back for the second series when I see it. Bird may be on the roster longer than we think.
“This becomes an important week for us, just trying to evaluate and make the best decisions,” Boone said to Hoch. “We don’t think it’s going to be a long time for Hicks, but that’ll factor into it. How many pitchers we go with, how we can figure that, those will all be conversations that we have that will be ongoing throughout the week. But I would say, we haven’t decided anything yet.”
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The Yankees love Bird and I am certain they want him to seize the opportunity created by the Hicks injury and run with it. They want to have to make a difficult first base decision at some point. At this point I need to see Bird stay healthy and produce for more than, like, five games at a time to buy into him as potential impact piece. There is upside here though, and there figure to be DH at-bats available now. The Hicks injury is Bird’s latest chance to show the club he’s worth keeping around.