The New York Yankees are embracing competition this spring at the shortstop and left field positions. They avoided arbitration with shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a one-year, $6 million contract in his final year of arbitration eligibility according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. The footsteps of highly regarded prospects Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe are even louder given that both ball players are in the Yankees’ major league camp. The expectation is for Peraza to compete against Kiner-Falefa with Volpe receiving invaluable experience as a non-roster invitee. Some are of the belief that Kiner-Falefa would fit better into the Yankees’ plans as a utility ball player instead of an everyday shortstop.
Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Cabrera are two candidates to start the season playing left field but expect the position to be closely monitored by management and fans. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Hicks is signed to a seven-year, $70 million contract which covers the 2019-2025 seasons. The Yankees hold a 2026 club option for $12.5 million ($1 million buyout). Based on the 28-man roster salaries and pro-rated signing bonuses, Hicks is scheduled to earn almost $10.786 million this season while his Competitive Balance Tax salary based on average annual value will be $10 million.
Cabrera has only achieved 50 days of major league service time according to Baseball-Reference and will likely make the $720,000 major league minimum for the 2023 season. He also possesses two out of a possible three minor league options. A pleasant surprise who provided the Yankees with optimism over 44 regular and eight postseason ball games last season, the 23-year-old Cabrera is a perfect blend of exuberance, maturity, and versatility. He has earned the Yankees’ trust, but still needs time to develop skills that are essential for a left fielder.
Throughout Aaron Boone’s five seasons as manager, the Yankees have used 25 different left fielders with mixed results. As they crave stability, conversations have focused on deficiencies instead of what is needed to achieve success. A top priority is to avoid another high strikeout, low contact hitter who will occasionally hit a home run that will elicit excitement thanks to the latest Statcast innovations. The only justification for Joey Gallo’s abysmal 140 ball game experiment over parts of two seasons (2021-2022) was that he was a two-time Gold Glove Award winning outfielder.
What should the Yankees pursue in terms of production from a left fielder? They need a left field equivalent of a healthy DJ LeMahieu. A perfect blend of offensive production that emphasizes contact and on-base percentage (OBP) while manufacturing runs. The left fielder must also demonstrate a proficiency in advanced defensive metrics such as arm strength, defensive runs saved (DRS), outs above average (OAA), and ultimate zone rating (UZR). It would be a bonus for the Yankees if they could have a left fielder who possesses the instincts of a center fielder.
In a major league career that has spanned a decade, Hicks has played 112 ball games in left field (785.1 innings) and has posted a 13 DRS and 9.6 UZR according to FanGraphs. Last season, Hicks achieved a career high 55 ball games (413 innings) playing left field after spending the 2018-2021 seasons exclusively in center field. Based on a minimum 400 innings played in left field last season according to FanGraphs, Hicks’ 8 DRS was tied for the third best and his 6.5 UZR was fourth best among the 37 qualified ball players. Hicks was the hardest throwing left fielder according to Baseball Savant with an average velocity of 92.8 miles per hour over 134 throws. The major league average for left field last season was 87.4 miles per hour.
As Hicks embarks upon his age 33 season, there are concerns regarding durability and declining performance. According to Spotrac, Hicks has missed 352 days due to seven stints on the injured list since being traded by the Minnesota Twins in November 2015 to the Yankees. He sustained a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist which led to season ending surgery in May 2021 after 32 ball games. In October 2019, surgery was needed to repair a damaged ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Hicks has never played in 140 ball games in a season and has battled through a series of back, oblique, hamstring, and intercostal muscle strains. He even sustained a knee injury in Game Five of the 2022 American League Division Series which ended his postseason.
While health hasn’t been an ally to Hicks, he has still been subjected to criticism due to his anemic offense. The genesis of the ire begins with a quick examination of Hicks’ slash line: batting average (BA) / on-base percentage (OBP) / slugging percentage (SLG). In 162 ball games over the course of the 2021-2022 seasons, Hicks has posted a .211/.322/.317 slash line which produced a .639 on-base plus slugging (OPS) according to Baseball-Reference. Based on a minimum 1,000 plate appearances between the 2019-2022 seasons, Hicks was tied for 87th out of a possible 102 qualified outfielders with a .701 OPS according to FanGraphs.
The sample size regarding Cabrera’s left field skills is limited to 70 innings over nine regular season ball games last season in which he posted a 0 DRS and 0.5 UZR according to FanGraphs. In terms of the postseason, Cabrera played 47.2 innings in left field over six ball games according to Baseball-Reference. His only other experience had occurred in one ball game for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Yankees’ Triple-A minor league affiliate.
In his first press conference of the spring, Boone made it clear there will be competition for at bats when it comes to who will be playing left field. The narrative surrounding Hicks from Boone’s perspective is that he is coming off two seasons of injuries and disappointment. Boone wants Hicks to be hungry and prove to everyone that he can still be an impact ball player. Boone acknowledged the contributions made by the switch hitting Cabrera in an abbreviated period last season, but also knows he has great value through his versatility. Boone also didn’t overlook the ball players in camp who are non-roster invitees and what they could possibly contribute based on past experience.
Do the Yankees presently have the right talent to fill the void in left field and is it, Aaron Hicks? If so, can a rejuvenated and healthy Hicks provide stability as an everyday left fielder? Is a platoon between Hicks and Oswaldo Cabrera an optimum decision? If the Yankees must look outside the franchise for assistance, how much are they willing to spend or sacrifice in terms of prospects?
Manager Aaron Boone knows this won’t be a decision with a concrete resolution by Opening Day. Playing time will be based on performance, consistency, and constantly reassessing the New York Yankees’ needs. Given the Yankees’ penchant for flexibility, expect to see Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader spending time in left field this season when the Yankees decide to play Giancarlo Stanton in right field.
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