In the quest for payroll space, could trading Aaron Hicks be a "right" move for the Yankees?
I've taken a look at why the Yankees' desire to stay under the $197 million tax threshold is an important goal to achieve this year, but as the countdown to Spring Training ticks lower, there's always a chance that the Yankees could try to swoop in and grab a big bargain, and just as much of a chance that they could try to shed a short-term salary asset to help facilitate that even further.
Jacoby Ellsbury and a handful of relievers -- most notably David Robertson, but also Dellin Betances and Adam Warren -- are the names fans and pundits alike have thrown out as possible assets to deal, but here's a devil's advocate thought: Could trading Aaron Hicks be a "right" move in this situation?
Despite the Yankees' surplus of outfielders, the case for not trading Hicks is obvious. He's inexpensive (would $2.825 million really be savings?), is under team control through 2019 and, coming off a breakout regular season where he set career highs in seven major offensive categories (in just 88 games, no less), he ended the year as the team's no doubt ,everyday center fielder.
But, looking at Marcels, ZiPS and Steamer projections for 2018, Hicks is penciled in to be somewhere around a .250 hitter with a .750 OPS, 15 or so home runs, and 50 or so RBI in 400-425 plate appearances. Jacoby Ellsbury, meanwhile, is projected for a pretty similar offensive season, with some peaks and valleys across the board (higher average but less power, for instance), and while Hicks is the superior defender at this point, the Yankees still would have three other Gold Glove-caliber defenders in Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton.
When you glance at the market, there are a handful of teams that still need outfield help this winter, but free agency, or at least marquee free agency, doesn't seem to be a fit. With less than 30 days left in the offseason, top free agents J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain are still on the board, and the three biggest outfield moves thus far have been the Giants' trade for Andrew McCutchen, a re-signing of sorts with Jay Bruce returning to the Mets and what we'll call an opt-out buyout -- Justin Upton's "extension" with the Angels, where he traded the remaining four years and $88.5 million on his deal for 5/106.
And, while projections are what they are, the past is also the past, and there's no clear read on whether the real Aaron Hicks is the one the Yankees saw in 2016, or the one they saw for most of 2017. If it's closer to the former, dealing him now would be akin to selling high, and if it's the latter, well, it may be selling low, but he'll be a free agent in two years, and the Yankees have the Major League choice (read: Brett Gardner's option), Minor League depth (sup Clint Frazier?) and money (Bryce Harper is a free agent next winter) to survive, with the chance that they could just re-sign Hicks in 24 months.
From the Yankees' side, here's how this could possibly work: If Hicks is dealt, Jacoby Ellsbury steps back in as the nominal starting center fielder and fourth man in the outfield rotation, and assuming that a fifth outfielder would still get limited playing time (as it appears Ellsbury would in the current alignment) and Gary Sanchez and/or Greg Bird will get a handful of DH days per month, the Yankees could choose to eschew a true fifth outfielder and simply rotate through their extra players as the 25th man depending on player health, upcoming opponents or any other number of factors.
On the other side, well, as I said, there are some teams that need outfield help, and some teams that could be good fits for a trade on both sides. One in particular that fits both profiles is San Francisco, who still need an outfielder even after acquiring McCutchen and could use a longer-term asset with both of their corner outfielders (McCutchen and Hunter Pence) set to be free agents next winter, but are right up against the luxury tax threshold and seemingly loathe to go too far over it. A splashy addition like Cain or Martinez would be a fit physically but not financially.
Moving Hicks would not be a huge financial windfall, and yes, it could "hurt" the team in the short-term, but as prices come down and the Yankees' seeming desire to add another starter keeps surfacing as a narrative, it might be an idea worth exploring. Even spending $197,000,001 keeps the Yankees in tax purgatory, so every dollar actually does count -- even if it "hurts" the lineup at the sake of a huge upgrade in the rotation -- and if three million in hurtful savings allows for a bigger blue-chip investment, well, it will all be worth it if there's a parade down the Canyon of Heroes in November.