Extension season is in full swing. Yesterday the Yankees somewhat surprisingly signed impending free agent Aaron Hicks to a seven-year, $70M contract with an eighth year club option. That comes after the Yankees signed Luis Severino to a four-year, $40M contract with a fifth year club option two weeks ago. Safe to say the team’s archaic “no extensions” policy is no more. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the Hicks deal, so let’s get to ’em.
1. I say the signing is somewhat surprising for two reasons: Term and money. Seven years? Didn’t see that coming, even though the contract begins right away and is effectively a six-year, $64M extension on top of the one-year, $6M deal Hicks signed to avoid arbitration last month. Long-term contracts are supposed to be big and scary these days, so much so that free agent spending has ground to a halt, yet here’s a seven-year deal covering a player’s age 29-35 seasons, with an option for his age 36 season. Huh. As for the money, getting Hicks at $10M annually is shocking. I can’t believe the average annual value is that low. Here are the center field contract comparables:
- Dexter Fowler: $16.5M annually across five years (signed prior to age 31 season)
- Lorenzo Cain: $16M annually across five years (signed prior to age 32 season)
- A.J. Pollock: $13.75M annually across four years (signed prior to age 31 season)
I wrote about the recent Pollock signing setting the market for Hicks not too long ago. Hicks has been the better player the last two years and he’s two years younger than Pollock, yet he signed for only $15M more in guaranteed money, and that $15M is spread across three more guaranteed years. The Yankees were really able to sign a player of this caliber for $10M annually? I mean, we’re talking about a 29-year-old +5 WAR switch-hitting center fielder one year before free agency. For reference, Brett Gardner will earn $9.5M this year between his salary and option buyout. In the ol’ wild west days when teams spent real money, Hicks would’ve been a $100M player. He winds up with Fowler/Cain/Pollock total money but across more years. Teams are squeezing free agents so much that players are now jumping on team friendly extensions below market value. It was inevitable. I will never ever blame a player for taking the money. Good for Hicks. He set himself and newborn Aaron Jr. up for life. It’s just that, two or three years ago, Hicks would’ve signed for more money and not as many years. There’s little doubt the slow free agent market contributed to his decision to take the money and pass on testing the open market.
2. According to the unadjusted $/WAR calculations at FanGraphs, Hicks has given the Yankees $65.4M in production the last two seasons. Based on that, Hicks could be worth his entire extension the next two or three years alone. The $/WAR calculation at FanGraphs doesn’t really apply to the Yankees though. They should — should — be willing to pay more for a win than the average team because each win the Yankees add greatly increases their chances of winning the AL East and thus winning the World Series. (I don’t know about you, but I am sick of the Wild Card Game.) Adding wins is the single biggest priority right now, and, with this extension, the Yankees added a lot of wins in 2020 and beyond. A lot of wins on a long-term yet affordable contract. Affordable enough that, should Hicks go all Jacoby Ellsbury, his salary won’t stand in the way of doing anything big. Also, at that price, Hicks will be forever tradeable, especially since his actual salaries are lower in 2024 and 2025 than 2020-23. If you’re into surplus value, the Hicks extension will be in the black for the Yankees very quickly, especially since the Yankees are ostensibly willing to pay more for a win than the $/WAR numbers at FanGraphs would lead you to believe. He could be worth the $70M before the end of next year. Everything after that is gravy.
3. Last week I laid out what I thought was the Yankees’ extension priority list and I had Hicks in the top spot, so I’m not surprised at all to see him get a deal. He’s a quality player and he plays a position where the Yankees have little depth, and few quality options are expected to hit the market. Seriously, who was going to play center field next year if not Hicks? Estevan Florial won’t be ready, Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier can’t (or shouldn’t, anyway) play center field everyday, and neither should then-36-year-old Brett Gardner. Assuming the Pirates exercise their $11.5M club option for Starling Marte (that’s an easy yes), the best free agent center fielders next winter will be Leonys Martin and Juan Lagares, and nope. Nope nope nope. Trying to repeat the Hicks move with a buy low candidate like Byron Buxton or Manny Margot would’ve been much more preferable to signing one of those dudes, and who’s to say a young buy low candidate like that would even be available? The best move was signing Hicks, and the Yankees did exactly that on team friendly terms. Center field was going to a real issue going forward had the Yankees let Hicks walk or been outbid. You can always find a cheap corner outfielder in free agency. Center field though? Nope.
4. That all said, given his age and the contract length, there’s no doubt the Yankees signed Hicks with the understanding he will finish the contract in a corner outfield spot. I’d say right field is more likely than left because his arm is so strong. It would go to waste in left. Center field is a young man’s position. Last year Charlie Blackmon (32), Lorenzo Cain (32), Adam Jones (32), and A.J. Pollock (30) were the only 30-somethings to start at least 100 games in center field. Jones moved to right field in August and Blackmon is moving to right this year. Denard Span is the only player in the last three seasons to start at least 100 games in center at age 33 or older. He started 129 games in center at age 33 for the 2017 Giants and he was horrible out there. His time in center ended the next season. A center fielder, even one as athletic as Hicks, moving to a corner in his early-to-mid-30s is the natural order of things. The Yankees kept Bernie Williams in center far longer than they should’ve — Bernie is forever cool with me, but he was at -63 DRS in center from 2002-05 (ages 33-36), and yikes — though they didn’t repeat that mistake with Johnny Damon. He was a left fielder by age 33. At some point Hicks will slow down and have to move to a corner. Given his age and athleticism, I think we’re at least three years away from that happening, probably four. Hicks strikes me as a Cain type who can continue to play center through his age 32 or 33 seasons. That’d be ideal.
5. Now that Hicks is signed and some new information has come to light, I might as well update that extension priority list I mentioned two points ago. This is what I think it looks like now:
- Dellin Betances (free agent after 2019)
- Didi Gregorius (free agent after 2019)
- Aaron Judge (free agent after 2022)
- Gary Sanchez (free agent after 2022)
- Gleyber Torres (free agent after 2024)
- Miguel Andujar (free agent after 2023)
Two weeks ago I had Betances behind Gregorius and Judge. Since then, we’ve heard more about the Yankees and Betances discussing an extension than any other player. Even with his volatility, it makes sense. Dellin will be a free agent following this season, so there is some pressure to get this done soon, and Gregorius, another impending free agent, is coming back from a major surgery. The Yankees might want to wait to see how Sir Didi bounces back before getting serious about an extension. Since the Yankees are in the extension giving mode, signing Judge figures to be high on the priority list, maybe even ahead of Gregorius. The Yankees could easily ride out Judge’s final dirt cheap pre-arbitration year and enjoy the mammoth production on a six-figure salary. It is an option. Signing him now equals more long-term savings though. That’s how these deals work. The sooner you sign the player, the bigger the discount. Should Judge repeat his 2018 season in 2019, minus the wrist injury, he’ll threaten arbitration salary records. Locking in his salaries now, even if it means paying more luxury tax in 2019, could equal huge savings down the road. Anyway, that’s what I think the team’s extension priority list looks like. The healthy impending free agent, the injured impending free agent, the homegrown face of the franchise four years away from free agency, then everyone else.
6. What does the Hicks signing mean for Florial? Absolutely nothing. Nothing at all. Don’t even sweat it. The two are in no way connected. Hicks has established himself as an above-average big leaguer. Florial is a just turned 21-year-old kid likely to start the season back with High-A and maybe finish it in Double-A. Also, he has some pretty serious pitch recognition issues to iron out. I don’t believe the Hicks deal means the Yankees will be more open to trading Florial because I believe the Yankees have always been open to trading Florial. I’m not saying they would give him away, but a prospect this risky should never be made off-limits. Not for MLB roster help when your championship window is as open as it’s going to get. What happens when Florial is big league ready? First, celebrate, because that’ll mean he’s overcome his pitch recognition issues and is poised to be a really good player. Second, sit back and let the Yankees figure it out. Florial is probably two years away from the big leagues, maybe more depending on his pitch recognition improvement, and a lot can and will change between now and then. Maybe he’ll arrive right as Hicks is ready to slide over to a corner spot. That’d be convenient. Maybe the Yankees will need to replace Aaron Judge when Florial is ready. I don’t think that’ll be case, but who knows? Who had the Yankees giving Hicks a seven-year contract (!) at this point two years ago? Exactly. Seriously, don’t worry about what the Hicks deal means for Florial. Nothing’s changed. Florial is still a very young and very talented prospect with a very real issue to correct in his pitch recognition. When he’s ready, if ever, the Yankees will make room for him. The Hicks extension doesn’t change that.
7. So, now that the Yankees have locked up two core players with more extensions seemingly on the way, they’re going to circle back and pursue Bryce Harper, right? Right? No, no they’re not, because they were never going to pursue Bryce Harper and the whole “we can’t give out a big contract because we need to sign our core” thing was little more than a lame excuse for the team’s contribution to league-wide payroll stagnation. We’re talking about the Yankees here. Forgive me for thinking the team in the game’s biggest market with the league’s highest revenues should be able to sign their core players and afford premier free agents. It shouldn’t be one or the other and yet we’re being told it is. Whatever, man. At least no one with the Yankees has said, “Did we promise we were going to spend more money, or did we promise we were going to have more flexibility?” like Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos a few weeks ago. Imagine Brian Cashman or Hal Steinbrenner saying that. My blood would’ve boiled. The Yankees had a good offseason — not a great offseason, but a good offseason — and now they’re signing core players to team friendly contracts. All things considered, it could be worse. An awful lot worse. It could be quite a bit better too.