By George A. King III
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Forget five pitchers fighting for two rotation jobs. The right-field competition between Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks has turned into the hottest battle in Yankees camp that may not be decided much before the April 2 opener.
After Hal Steinbrenner anointed Judge “my starting right fielder” in the offseason, many believed Hicks was going to be the fourth outfielder for the second consecutive season.
“My expectations are [Judge is] going to be my starting right fielder this year,” Steinbrenner said. “That’s a big deal and a big opportunity. I know he’s going to make the most of it.”
Fifteen games into the exhibition season, Hicks has put himself in position to send Judge back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“We never said it was going to be Judge,” general manager Brian Cashman told The Post at Spectrum Field before the Yankees beat the Phillies 5-0 Friday. “Hicks is a young man with a lot to prove. He is having a great camp on offense and defense. Judge is having a good camp, too. I know it’s early.”
It’s actually not all that early since Opening Day against the Rays is 22 days away.
With the popular belief spring training doesn’t provide a real way to evaluate talent, the reality is evaluators only can work with what they see, even if it’s against inferior talent.
“You have no choice. You let them knock off the rest, but like everything else, this is performance-based,” Cashman said. “Not just what the performance is here, but what it will be in three months.”
Hicks went 0-for-3 and struck out twice Friday. Judge went 1-for-3 and hit an opposite-field homer.
Cashman certainly is correct in saying Hicks has something to prove after his first season in pinstripes was a big disappointment.
Acquired from the Twins for catcher John Ryan Murphy, the switch-hitting Hicks arrived with a reputation for hitting left-handers. With Brett Gardner in left, Jacoby in center and Carlos Beltran in right Hicks started last year as the fourth outfielder. When he got the chance to play, Hicks didn’t hit much, batting .217 with a .617 OPS. Against right-handers, Hicks batted .161 (19-for-118) with a meager .484 OPS.
After Beltran was dealt to the Rangers, Hicks received regular playing time and improved. He batted .280 with four homers, nine RBIs and a .769 OPS in August and .250 with a homer, three RBIs and a .730 OPS in September/October.
Judge played in 27 big league games last year until he was sidelined by an oblique muscle strain in mid-September. He hit .179 (15-for-84) with four homers and 10 RBIs. Most alarming were his 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats.
Judge, who turns 25 next month, has whiffed six times in 26 spring at-bats and is hitting .346. Hicks, 27, is at .261.
Should Hicks win the job, Judge isn’t going to stick around as a bench player. That would open a fourth outfielder spot. Even as good as Dustin Fowler has looked in spring training, it’s highly unlikely the 22-year-old who never has played above Double-A would be the choice. Ditto Clint Frazier, who played 30 games at Triple-A last year. Mason Williams, who hasn’t appeared in a spring game because of a strained left patella, could fill the role if he gets healthy enough. He was limited to 43 minor league games and 12 major league tilts last year because of shoulder surgery.
“I haven’t thought about it,” Judge said of opening the season at Triple-A. “I want to compete and have quality at-bats. That’s all I can do. As far as where I go, who is playing where, that’s what the big boys are getting paid to do.”