Opening day is roughly two weeks away and the Yankees might not have their regular starting center fielder for it. Back problems have held Aaron Hicks out of camp for a little more than a week now. Even though he’s indicated that he’s not worried about his readiness for the start of the season, it’s fair to wonder with time running out. It seems like there’s been talk of Hicks getting back into action every day now, only to be pushed back. The latest is that he just received a cortisone shot on Monday.
It’s fine and astute to be cautious at this junction of the year. It’s also reasonable to ponder what would happen if he’s not ready to go by the end of the month. If healthy, the team’s position players were all but set, aside from the first base competition. If Hicks proves not to be ready by opening day, there would have to be a reshuffle.
Here’s how the dominoes could fall without Hicks: Brett Gardner would become the regular center fielder, which in turn leaves a left field vacancy. Giancarlo Stanton could take over in that corner, but that would leave the designated hitter role open. Give that job to Miguel Andujar, and third base is available. Let DJ LeMahieu take over the hot corner, and a bench spot opens up. Who gets it? It depends on how the club plans to replace Hicks’s playing time.
Without Hicks, the Yankees have only three true outfielders slated to make the 25-man roster. Tyler Wade, the apparent favorite for the final bench spot, has some experience out there. Even though the team is working him in the outfield corners this spring, they still might want an extra primary outfielder. That could be Clint Frazier, though it would only make sense if he were to play daily. That means he’d probably rotate with Stanton in left field and at DH, which would bump Andujar and LeMahieu back to their original roles.
A problem with going the Frazier route is that he hasn’t performed well in Grapefruit League play. Not that we should make a big deal of spring training stats, but it might behoove him to spend some extra time in Triple-A to get back up to speed. Shaking off the rust in Scranton wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Jacoby Ellsbury doesn’t appear to be an option even though he’s joining the team in a few days. If he reports this weekend as anticipated, he’d only have ten days or so to be ready for big league action. Ellsbury’s going to open the season on the injured list barring something unforeseen.
If the Yankees are comfortable not having a true fourth outfielder, perhaps they’d reconsider the idea of rostering both Luke Voit and Greg Bird. They’ve made it clear that under normal circumstances it doesn’t make sense to keep both of them, but maybe losing Hicks changes things. In this scenario, Stanton would play the outfield regularly while Voit and Bird are both in the lineup at first base and DH.
The only other 40-man roster position players are Kyle Higashioka and Thairo Estrada. Neither make sense to replace Hicks for the short run. There’s no need for a third catcher nor another infielder.
Would the Yankees entertain a non-roster player? Billy Burns, Matt Lipka, and Estevan Florial are the current in-house options with the major league team this month. Florial has been awesome in camp and will need to be added to the 40-man eventually, but there’s no need to rush him. Burns and Lipka don’t offer much more than a warm body, which probably keeps them from traveling north. Alternatively, depending on Hicks’s status over the next week or two, the Yankees can monitor other team’s NRIs with opt out dates approaching. There are even some mildly interesting free agents out there, should this back problem linger.
If I had to rank the possibilities of potential replacement, I’d go as follows:
- Free agent/Poach another team’s NRI
I lean toward Bird/Voit because they both could gain regular playing time, and it would give the team more time to make a decision on what to do with the two of them. If Frazier wasn’t returning from such a difficult situation, he’d easily be my top choice.
Hopefully this roster speculation is much ado about nothing. I’m sure the last thing Hicks wants to do is spend any time on the injured list. He has a reputation of being somewhat brittle, though he did manage a career high 137 games played last season. Regardless of how this plays out, it’s most important to get him back to full strength without taking any shortcuts.