Hicks trade, Gardner rumors hint at Yankees' off-season plans

The Yankees acquired Aaron Hicks from the Minnesota Twins the same day there were rumors that Brett Gardner could be headed to the Mariners in a trade. What would that move mean as New York begins its off-season movement?
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Amid the multitude of rumors and the few small transactions to come out of the general manager meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., on Wednesday were two that, taken together, hint at something larger. In the wee morning hours on Wednesday, the New York Post’s Joel Sherman reported that the Yankees had discussed a possible trade that would send All-Star outfielder Brett Gardner to the Mariners. Wednesday afternoon, the Yankees completed an actual trade with the Twins, dealing backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to Minnesota for outfielder Aaron Hicks. Combined, the rumor and the trade suggest that there may be a youth movement ahead for New York's outfield.

In 2015, only one of the Yankees’ top 10 position players by playing time was younger than 31, that being 25-year-old shortstop Didi Gregorius. The team seems likely to get younger at second base in 2016, with Dustin Ackley, heading into his age-28 season, and rookie Rob Refsnyder, who will be 25, the in-house leaders for playing time at that position. However, outside of the middle infield spots, their projected starters will all be 32 or older in the coming season.

Enter Hicks, who turned 26 in early October and will, at minimum, replace free agent Chris Young as the team’s lefty-killing fourth outfielder next year. The 14th-overall pick in the 2008 draft, Hicks was a highly-regarded prospect, reaching No. 19 on Baseball America’s preseason list in 2010, but he jumped directly from Double A to the majors to start the 2013 season and struggled terribly. A very good defensive centerfielder, Hicks’s aggressive play in the field resulted in a concussion, back problems and a right shoulder injury in 2014.

Cut from his Venezuelan Winter League team last November due to a batting slump, Hicks opened the 2015 season in Triple A, but he hit well enough at that level over the season’s first five weeks that he was called up in early May and inserted as Minnesota's everyday centerfielder once again, replacing the underperforming platoon of Jordan Schafer and Shane Robinson. Save for two brief disabled list stays (for a strained forearm in June and a left hamstring strain in late August), Hicks largely retained that job for the remainder of the season, thanks in part to the struggles of top prospect Byron Buxton, who proved unable to take the job away from him.

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Hicks, a switch-hitter, still hasn’t come particularly close to fulfilling his prospect potential in the majors, but his production has improved in each of this first three seasons. He also has a career .272/.360/.447 line against lefties in the major leagues, including a .307/.375/.495 line in 112 plate appearances against southpaws this past season. Given those splits, plus his youth, his strong play in the field, his four remaining years of team control and the fact that he won’t be arbitration eligible until after next season, he is a fine replacement for the 32-year-old Young, and there remains the possibility that he could be even better than that. Playing his home games at the new Yankee Stadium could lead to better results from the left-side of the plate, as might a chance to work with new hitting coaches in New York's Alan Cockrell and Marcus Thames.

For the moment, Aaron Hicks (left) and Brett Gardner are teammates in the New York Yankees' outfield.

For the moment, Aaron Hicks (left) and Brett Gardner are teammates in the New York Yankees' outfield.

The Yankees aren’t necessarily betting on that upside just yet, but the acquisition of Hicks in conjunction with the rumors that Gardner is on the trading block could suggest that Hicks is merely the first step toward a younger outfield in the Bronx. New York got cups of coffee from their own top outfield prospects, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams, in 2015, and both excelled in extremely limited opportunities. Williams, who turned 24 in August, hit .286/.318/.571 in eight games before suffering a shoulder injury on a dive in centerfield. And Heathcott, who turned 25 in September and is a former first-round draft pick, hit .400/.429/.720 in 17 games.

Meanwhile, the top prospect in the Yankees’ system is 23-year-old Aaron Judge, a 6'7" slugger who will open the 2016 season in Triple A and could wind up contributing at the major league level the way another 23-year-old, first baseman Greg Bird, did this past season.

As for Gardner, he is the obvious flex point in the Yankees' outfield. Jacoby Ellsbury, 32, is locked into centerfield by his onerous contract, which includes a full no-trade clause and on which he is still owed more than $110 million over the next five years. Carlos Beltran, 39 in April, has a hold on rightfield for one more season due to his $15 million salary. That, plus having Alex Rodriguez (under contract for two more seasons at $20 million each) limited to DH duty and Mark Teixeira (one more year at $22.5 million) and Bird capable of splitting the first base and DH duties, means that the 32-year-old Gardner could be expendable.

A first-time All-Star in 2015, Gardner has averaged 4.6 wins above replacement in his last five healthy seasons (he missed most of 2012 due to surgery on his right elbow). He is an outstanding fielder who is as viable in center as left, high-percentage basestealer who has averaged 22 steals over the last three years with solid on-base skills and surprising lefthanded power (33 home runs over the last two seasons). In fact, Gardner has arguably been one of the most underrated players in baseball this decade. Coming off that All-Star appearance, however, he may finally look like a bargain to other teams, as he’s under contract for three more seasons for just $38 million (or just less than $13 million per season) with a $12.5 million club option for 2019.

Then again, Gardner’s age and poor finish to the 2015 season (.193/.276/.275 in 248 PA after July 28, including going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in the wild-card loss to Houston), could result in the Yankees selling low should they decide to trade Gardner this winter.

Yankees trade catcher John Ryan Murphy to Twins for OF Aaron Hicks

Still, if the plan is to accelerate the team’s youth movement, trading Gardner would be an important step, particularly if he could bring back a young starter from the Mariners. New Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto told FanGraphs’ David Laurila on Wednesday that he sees “overall team defense as our biggest area in need of improvement. We want to get more athletic and more defensive-oriented in the positions where we can.”

Gardner would seem to fit the bill perfectly there, and Sherman added that “adding on-base skills in front of a lineup middle of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager” was also a priority for Dipoto and the new Mariners front office, and the writer identified 27-year-old lefty James Paxton as a pitcher Seattle may be willing to use to achieve those goals.

This being the Yankees, one cannot rule out a Gardner trade being followed by a run at one of the top free agent outfielders on the market. Jason Heyward, 26, would be a particularly attractive option for New York as the youngest of that lot and a lefty-hitter who could see his power numbers improve in the Bronx. And Justin Upton, 28, would also provide youth and talent.

Of course, we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves there. Still, at this early stage of the postseason, every small move is likely just the first link in a chain of transactions, and the chain that could extend from the Yankees’ acquisition of Hicks may be among the more interesting to follow.