Aaron Hicks, OF, New York Yankees

Acquired by New York in the deal that sent catcher JR Murphy to Minnesota, Hicks is a post-hype prospect who showed promise in an injury-interrupted 2015 season. He turned 26 this October, making him two months younger than $184 million free agent Jason Heyward – the same Jason Heyward who hit just 11 and 13 home runs in the past two seasons, respectively, despite over 610 PA in both. Meanwhile, the unheralded Hicks hit 11 bombs in just 390 PA. Of course, home run totals do not make a player, otherwise Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez would still currently be employed.

However, Hicks’s 8.7 percent walk rate nearly matched Heyward’s 9.2 percent rate, while holding his own in center field with a 7.2 UZR/150. Clearly, the Twins are confident in Byron Buxton’s ability (as they should be) in center, but it’s still interesting they made Hicks available. With incumbent Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki, 32, posting poor numbers both at the plate and behind it, the Twins clearly wanted an MLB-ready catcher, and bringing the 24-year-old Murphy on board to usher in their next wave of young pitchers makes sense. With that said, Hicks will be arbitration-eligible for only the first time following the 2016 season, and won’t hit free agency until a year after Heyward’s first opt-out. The fantasy baseball angle aside, I think the Yankees made a very savvy baseball move by acquiring four years of Hicks for a player they deemed expendable.

Standing 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Hicks is a plus athlete with a frame that suggests there’s still room for his power to develop. He’s a switch-hitter who posted a 142 OPS+ versus lefties and an 82 against righties in 2015, combining for a subpar 95 OPS+ overall. Without looking at any numbers, I would expect Hicks’s production against righties to improve based on what I call “The Johnny Damon Effect”.

In 2006, 32-year-old lefty outfielder Johnny Damon signed with the New York Yankees. In his first year wearing pinstripes, he hit 24 bombs, with 10 in 216 PA against right-handed pitchers in the house that George built. The prior year, with the Red Sox, he’d hit just 10 home runs total in nearly 700 PAs. Over the next two seasons as a Yankee, Damon hit a respectable 29 home runs. Then, magically, as a 35-year old impending free agent, he hacked his way to another 24-homer season. This time, he hit 12 bombs in just 215 PA at home versus righties — due in large part to Damon doinking balls over the short porch in right, like this darling against Roy Halladay. That’s right, Damon doinked a dinger off Doc. You can see Damon’s disbelief turn into borderline embarrassment as he rounds the bases. Like the face of a hardened criminal set free on a legal technicality – Damon committed GTQS (Grand Theft Quality Start) and he knew it.

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Using this awesome ballpark overlay tool from Clem’s, you can see the right-center gap cuts straight across Yankee Stadium, whereas it billows out in Target Field (with a prohibitive 23-foot high fence), soaking up plenty of would-be home runs. The three-year average park factors from Baseball Prospectus spell out the true impact one should expect:

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As you can see, Yankee Stadium should provide Hicks with a noticeable boost in home runs from both sides of the plate. Of course, these additional home runs aren’t all routine fly balls in other parks. Some come at the expense of other extra-base hits, but I’d trade a triple for a home run ten times out of ten.

If Hicks can continue through his prime years as an above-average to very good right-handed hitter, and occasionally hit Damon dingers out as a lefty, we could be looking at a legit 20+ HR threat going forward. He also swiped 13 bases last year in under 100 games, and I think we can reasonably expect, given the opportunity, that number will rise to the 15-20 range as an everyday starter. Steamer600 has Hicks pegged for 15 home runs and 13 steals with a .250/.325/.394 triple-slash, which would make him usable in deeper fantasy leagues, and Steamer is notably pessimistic on players with limited track records (e.g., AJ Pollock’s 2016 Steamer600: .282/.336/.433 with 13 HR and 25 SB).

Hicks is moving from one unsettled outfield to another in the Bronx. He joins Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Carlos Beltran at the MLB level, supplemented by the looming duo of prospects whose names sound straight out of a bad action movie: Aaron Judge and Slade Heathcott. While Heathcott is likely no more than a fourth outfielder, Yankees fans hope Judge will compete for the right field job out of spring training. While the verdict is still out on Judge, I believe he’s much more Chris Carter than Giancarlo Stanton.

You can make a case Hicks is the best defensive center fielder on the current 40-man roster, and he’d be able to handle a corner spot comfortably. Some have suggested the Yankees will deploy him in the same role recently-departed Chris Young occupied last year (356 PA in 140 G), but with Beltran considering retirement, the recurring trade rumors swirling around Gardner, and the fragility of Ellsbury, I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Hicks hits that 600 PA milestone in each of the next three seasons.

Extrapolating on Hicks’s 2015 breakout after two disappointing years, and factoring in his transition to lefty-haven Yankee Stadium, one can easily picture him exploding for a 20/20 season. If he can maintain his near-nine percent walk rate, and benefit from a little BABIP luck — not too improbable given his speed — a .275/.350/.450 season isn’t off the spectrum for the new Yankee outfielder, and a 15/15 season seems almost assured given at least 600 PA. Of course, I’m banking on numerous factors carrying over for Hicks. Maybe he won’t be able to handle the New York spotlight, maybe he actually will serve the Chris Young role – but maybe he’ll blossom into a dynamic top of the order threat. From a fantasy perspective, I’m not advocating blowing your budget on Hicks, but he’s absolutely worth a $1-$5 flyer or late-round draft pick in all leagues, from dynasty to redraft.

Here’s a video of Hicks batting lefty, hitting a ball at Target Field which would’ve landed comfortably in the second deck of Yankee Stadium, and yet at 386 feet, was the shortest home run he hit all season. Here’s another video, this time showing Hicks batting right-handed, crushing a hanging 1-2 change up from Danny Duffy, leaving the barrel at over 107 mph. I can honestly say I have no idea which direction John Sterling will go with his inevitable trademark home run call for Hicks, but I hope it’s just as bad as the rest, and I hope to hear it often.

I finished a 12-team startup dynasty auction draft this past weekend, in which I was able to scoop up Hicks for nothing more than a $1 bid. While plenty of leagues will have an owner who’s at least somewhat privy to Hicks’s potential, there are some leagues you’ll be able to get him for as little as a buck. In redraft leagues, Hicks is a no-brainer addition to every ‘sleeper’ list. He’s essentially this year’s Michael Saunders, but without the chronic injuries. If you’re looking for a low-cost, high-upside outfielder with potential to be the next Michael Brantley or Lorenzo Cain, consider targeting Aaron Hicks.

 

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