By George King III
TAMPA — When Jacoby Ellsbury exited Sunday’s game after three innings, it was easy to believe the Yankees’ center fielder had a physical issue because in the last week of spring training, regulars routinely play at least through six frames.
It turned out Ellsbury only wanted two at-bats before leaving. Yet from the time of Ellsbury’s departure until the reason was given, Aaron Hicks’ value to the Yankees was reaffirmed.
The switch-hitting Hicks, who can play all three outfield positions, has to be better than he was a year ago, when the 27-year-old was horrid across the season’s first four months.
Hicks hit .217 in 123 games with a putrid .281 on-base percentage and a .617 OPS last year, but the Yankees are counting on him to bounce back this season, his second in pinstripes after being acquired from the Twins for catcher John Ryan Murphy following the 2015 season. Hicks was the Twins’ first-round pick (14th overall) in 2008.
With less than a week until Opening Day against the Rays in St. Petersburg, it appears Hicks is perched to contribute more than he did a year ago, when he struggled with inconsistent playing time until right fielder Carlos Beltran was dealt to the Rangers at the Aug. 1 deadline.
Sunday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, Hicks launched a two-run homer to right from the left side and had an RBI single in a 7-4 Yankees victory over the Rays.
“He has played very well. He has swung the bat well, he’s got some power and had some bunt base hits, stole some bases. Defensively he has played well,’’ Joe Girardi said of Hicks, who is hitting .286 (14-for-49) with three homers and seven RBIs in 21 games. “Both guys [Hicks and Aaron Judge] have had a good spring. These guys are taking it down to the wire.’’
Judge and Hicks opened camp competing for the starting job, and it could go until Saturday, a day before the Yankees open the season. Judge went 2-for-3 Sunday, and is hitting .321 (17-for-53) with two homers and four RBIs. Most importantly, he has whiffed just a dozen times in 53 at-bats after striking out 42 times in 84 big league at-bats last year.
Asked about a platoon in right, Girardi didn’t dismiss it, but hitters built like the 6-foot-7, 282-pound Judge tend to have long swings that are hurt by irregular work.
Because regular playing time isn’t a problem in spring training because the games don’t count, the question facing the Yankees is this: If Judge is the everyday right fielder — and that’s the way it is looking — where is Hicks’ playing time going to come from?
Girardi used him over Brett Gardner and Ellsbury against right-handers at the beginning of last season, but he didn’t produce and that role vanished.
“It’s something we’ve talked about. We thought he played better playing every day. His [playing] time was pretty sparingly last year early on,’’ Girardi said. “I think he has improved as a player. We like what we’ve seen. We liked what we saw at the end of last year. We’re going to have to iron out this week how we do this.’’
After hitting .187 (39-for-209) with three homers and 15 RBIs in the first four months of the season, Hicks batted .271 with five homers and 16 RBIs in the final two months, though he missed the first 19 days of September with a strained right hamstring. His OPS in August was .769 and .730 in September after being at .432 in June.
In today’s game, when analytics play such a big part in attempting to figure out what a player’s value is, Hicks’ situation doesn’t need a calculator to understand: He has to be better in 2017 than he was in 2016 because he can’t be worse.