Yankees lock up underrated Aaron Hicks with a 7-year extension

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Aaron Hicks is probably better than you think.

Ten days after extending ace Luis Severino, the New York Yankees made sure another valuable young star won’t reach free agency for several years. Aaron Hicks, 29, has signed a 7-year, $70 million contract with a club option for an eighth, meaning the Bombers have Hicks through his age-35 season.

Hicks has become one of the league’s more underrated players, overshadowed by his home run bashing outfield brethren (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton) and the popular young infielders on the team. Make no mistake, other than Judge, Stanton and maybe a rejuvenated Gary Sanchez, no Yankees position player is as valuable on the field today as Hicks. His 4.9 fWAR finished just behind his fellow Aaron last season, not including pitchers.

The former first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins does everything you want from a centerfielder. He handles his position without issue, gets on-base at an above-average clip (.372 in ’17, .366 in ’18), hits for power (27 homers in ’18) and makes good choices on the basepaths. The issue with Hicks isn’t the grades but the attendance; his career high in games played was last season’s 137. Given the price (more on that later) it’s a risk worth taking for the Yankees.

Here are your 2018 OBP leaders for outfielders with at least 550 plate appearances:

Outfielder OBP
Mike Trout .460
Mookie Betts .438
Christian Yelich .402
J.D. Martinez .402
Lorenzo Cain .395
Bryce Harper .393
Shin-Soo Choo .377
Andrew McCutchen .368
Tommy Pham .367
Aaron Hicks .366

From that same crop of outfielders, here is the full list of batters with a better walk rate in 2018:

Outfielder BB %
Mike Trout 20.1%
Bryce Harper 18.7%

I’ll spare you yet another table, but again from that crop of outfielders established above, only McCutchen and Betts did a better job of not swinging outside the zone than Hicks last season.

Consider too that underlying metrics suggest his power uptick in 2018 could be for real. From 2017 to 2018, he put barrel to ball more often (7.5% became 8.8%), saw his exit velocity increase nearly 4 mph (85.7 to 88.9) and his launch angle tick up nearly two degrees (10.6 to 12.5).

In laymen’s terms? He hit the ball a lot harder last year. That’s a good thing.

So what are the risks?

Well, the injury issue for one. Fortunately, Hicks hasn’t been plagued by the same injury over and over; it’s been a hamstring here, an oblique there, etc. It all adds up, though, and if you told me Hicks never plays more than, say, 120 games in any season during this contract I wouldn’t exactly be shocked. 0

The contract length also is a smidge uncomfortable. Hicks is 29 and the Yankees are paying for a healthy chunk of his mid-30s. Sure, there are the usual concerns about decline, but the average annual value of the contract is so absurdly low ($10 million is a smooth bargain for the Yankees) that it hardly matters. It’s less than half of what Jacoby Ellsbury’s Milk Carton makes right now. Seriously.

Bottom line: if Hicks falls below replacement level in year four or whatever, the salary won’t prevent the Yankees from making a move.

From the player’s perspective, given how free agency has played out and with the ever-present threat of labor turmoil on the horizon, Hicks took security over potential. Can’t say I blame him. It keeps him on a winning team with guaranteed checks coming.



Yankees extend Luis Severino, signing him through 2023 season

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Luis Severino has 40 million more reasons to shout.

The New York Yankees announced today they avoided arbitration with pitcher Luis Severino, agreeing to a 4-year, $40 million contract extension. A club option for a fifth year could keep the young hurler in pinstripes through the 2023 season.

Severino has been one of the best pitchers in the American League the last two seasons, ranking third in Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, fifth in innings pitched, fifth in xFIP and sixth in strikeout percentage. He’s also the hardest throwing starter in the entire sport, averaging 97.6 on his fastball. Bottom line: he’s young (he turns 25 in a few days), durable and dominant.

There’s a lot to like here. Severino gets the security of guaranteed money coming in and the Yankees get an ace in his peak seasons for decidedly less than ace money. Patrick Corbin, who’s close to as good as Severino, just signed a 6-year, $140 million deal before his age-29 season that carries him into his mid-thirties. Barring disaster, Severino just signed away that age-29 season.

Given how stingy teams have become, that could prove a costly decision for him once his free agency dawns. But, pitchers get hurt. They get hurt a lot. No matter what happens, Luis Severino has $40 million coming to him. He’s worth much more, but that kind of money changes lives.

The question for the Yankees might be just how good Severino can be. Last season was the tale of two halves:

Half xFIP K% BB% HR/FB
First 3.13 28.7% 6.4% 9.3%
Second 3.06 27.3% 5.3% 15.3%

Looks similar, right? The home run rate spiked in the second half, but the strikeouts and walks aren’t much different and the xFIP even dropped. Well, the ERAs were, um, not so similar: 2.31 vs 5.57.

What gives? Some of it could just be bad luck on balls in play; his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) jumped about one hundred points from .278 to .378. Typically that kind of jump is fluky — it’s baseball, stuff happens.

But can we find anything further under the hood? Severino was hit harder in the second half — less soft contact, more hard-hit contact. Further, if we examine his spin rate numbers for the year, it’s mostly consistent aside from some weirdness with his slider, again in the second half:

Severino Spin Rate

I’m not qualified to say whether that means a whole lot, but could it mean a mechanical problem or an injury?

There was an awful lot of smoke about tipping pitches, and frankly, the evidence is pretty compelling. Pitchers with stuff like Severino shouldn’t get beaten like a drum, but make no mistake, Game 3 of the ALDS was a butt kicking.

Severino’s friend and mentor Pedro Martinez said on the air he had been pitching through an injury. Severino denied it. I suppose only the Yankees and their ace know for sure, but he didn’t go on the injured list.

He was probably tipping his pitches, perhaps in response to an injury or something else. I don’t know for sure. Regardless, he’s one of the best pitchers in the sport and the Yankees just locked up what should be the best years of his career for far, far below market value. If Severino stays even close to how good he’s been so far, it’s a big win for the Bombers.

Yankees appear content with Tulowitzki until Didi can return

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Didi Gregorius is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The New York Yankees are headed into Spring Training apparently content with their options at shortstop, be it Troy Tulowitzki or another in-house option until Didi Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery. Manny Machado still hasn’t signed anywhere, but the Yankees hardly appear the favorite at this point.

So, Tulowitzki. I’ll spare you the “boy, this would be great in 2014” jokes, but man there’s not much here. Take a look at the last three years for the former Rockies All-Star:

Season Games wRC+ WAR
2016 131 104 3.0
2017 66 79 0.1
2018 0 0 0

Uh, great! If Machado wasn’t a serious pursuit, I don’t understand why the Yankees didn’t just re-sign Adeiny Hechavarria (or someone similar) to man shortstop until Gregorious is back. No, Hechavarria can’t hit at all, but he’s a slick defender and unlike Tulowitzki, not made of glass.

It’s not Tulowitzki’s fault he’s had such terrible problems with his heel, but the reality remains. The Yankees spent almost nothing to add him and if he breaks, he breaks; they release him and move on. But then you’re right back to square one but with fewer options.

Maybe I’m overrating Hechavarria, but at least you know he’ll be healthy and can handle short. The odds are Tulowitzki doesn’t make it through Spring Training without an injury, and even if he does, what are the odds he’s actually better than Hechavarria? I’m not optimistic. I think assuming Tulowitzki is a Major League shortstop in 2019 is probably absurd.

The other option, beyond the obvious, is to slide second baseman Gleyber Torres over to short. Torres came up through the minors as a shortstop and it’s within the realm of possibility he ends up there again. I don’t get the sense that’s an appealing option for the Yankees, though. This would be a better question for someone like Keith Law or Eric Longenhagen, but perhaps moving Torres off second temporarily would impede his development there? I don’t know.

If the Yankees insist on not adding Machado, they’re accepting below-par performance somewhere in the infield until Gregorious is healthy. I’m uncomfortable with that risk given the talent level across the Yankees’ roster; it’s time to push for a World Series, boys. But the brain trust in the Bronx believes this team can claim the elusive 28th championship, with or without Machado (or Bryce Harper).

Given how competitive the AL East is expected to be, a few wins left on the table because of weakness at shortstop could be the difference between a division title and the wild card and consequently a harder road to the Fall Classic.

None of this matters once the incumbent is back, and thus far Gregorius is doing well in his rehab, according to the New York Daily News. Sir Didi is already taking groundballs at shortstop and participating in light throwing drills, a big step in the recovery from Tommy John surgery.

“It felt pretty good,” Gregorius told the Daily News after a recent workout. “Pretty good.”

Gregorius, a vital part of this new Yankees core and a fan favorite, will turn 29 in a few weeks. He can become a free agent after this season, a curious time for him. If the year goes well, he’s probably still in line for a lengthy contract, but given the current market, who knows?