Yankees Acquire Aaron Hicks, A Potential Bargain

While it’s not going down as any kind of blockbuster, the Twins and Yankees struck a deal today, with Minnesota sending outfielder Aaron Hicks to the Yankees for catcher JR Murphy.

Hicks, a former highly though of prospect, finally showed some signs of life in 2015, putting up +1.5 WAR in 97 games after getting called back up from Triple-A. The improvement primarily came from his ability to avoid strikeouts, which looks to be potentially caused by a new-found willingness to swing at pitches in the strike zone; his in-zone swing rate jumped to 66%, significantly higher than it had been in his first two runs through the big leagues. With enough power to not just be a slap hitter and a good enough eye to draw some walks, Hicks profiles as something like a league average hitter going forward; Steamer projects him for a 99 wRC+ in 2016.

With some baserunning value and decent enough defense in center field, that makes Hicks a potentially interesting piece. In fact, if you look at the Steamer600 projections, where playing time is equalized for all players, you’ll note that Hicks looks like the kind of outfielder the Yankees have shown affinity for.

The Yankees Have a Type
Jacoby Ellsbury 600 0.264 0.323 0.396 0.719 0.313 96 2.9 -0.6 0.1 1.6 2.3
Aaron Hicks 600 0.256 0.331 0.395 0.726 0.318 99 0.7 4.7 0.3 -0.6 2.1
Brett Gardner 600 0.256 0.331 0.395 0.727 0.319 100 2.3 2.8 2.3 -2.8 2.0

The Yankees are rumored to be talking to teams about Brett Gardner, and they’d almost certainly move Jacoby Ellsbury if someone wanted to pick up a good chunk of the rest of his contract, so by acquiring Hicks, the team has basically set themselves up to have an internal replacement in case they move one of their veteran outfielders. And, of course, Hicks is significantly younger and cheaper, so the fact that they might not lose much in expected production from shipping out either Gardner or Ellsbury sets them up to come out well ahead of things if they can get a good return for the name-brand version of this player-type. Hicks isn’t likely to turn into a star, but he looks like he could be a solid average everyday player, and as a league minimum guy with five four years left of team control, this is a nice asset for the Yankees to pick up.

From the Twins perspective, they land a young catcher who also has shown signs of putting up decent offensive production at an up the middle position, but I’m a little more skeptical that he’ll retain his offensive value going forward. Murphy possesses less power than Hicks, but doesn’t offset that with better contact skills, nor has he shown the willingness to take pitches in order to draw walks to keep his on-base percentage up. His decent numbers in part-time play the last two years are BABIP-driven, and as a slow-footed catcher who doesn’t have a remarkable batted ball profile — his infield fly rate is actually higher than average — that shouldn’t be expected to last.

So Murphy’s probably more of a below average hitter, with Steamer projecting him as an 85 wRC+ guy in 2016, and not a lot of offensive potential beyond that unless he finds some power he hasn’t yet shown. That’s good enough offense to play in the big leagues — Wilson Ramos has an 85 wRC+ over the last three seasons, for instance — but to be a quality performer, he’d have to be a very good defensive catcher; there’s not a ton of evidence that’s the case, though. Statcorner graded him out as exactly average at pitch framing, and while he throws out a good enough number of baserunners, he doesn’t appear to be anything special at blocking pitches in the dirt.

Overall, Murphy looks like he likely fits best as a part-time catching option, a guy with enough skills to not be a black hole behind the plate, but probably not a guy deserving of a full-time job. The Twins needed help behind the plate, and this beats paying a lot of money to Matt Wieters or something, but I don’t know that Murphy is going to be more than a decent platoon guy in Minnesota.

For me, that makes this trade a pretty nice move for the Yankees. In Hicks, they’re getting a guy not too different from the middle-tier free agent center fielders, all of whom are in their 30s and expected to land 3-4 year deals for $10+ million per year. To get that kind of player for a decent backup catcher is a nice move by Brian Cashman, and sets them up to potentially swap Gardner or Ellsbury for something better than Murphy, and freeing up money to potentially make a run at another starting pitcher. Like last year’s Devon Travis/Anthony Gose swap, this isn’t going to be any kind of headline news, but might be the kind of early offseason small move that ends up paying dividends for the Yankees.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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