The Yankees have endured several stretches in 2017 without key players due to injury. They have played without Greg Bird (87 games missed through Tuesday), Starlin Castro (29 games missed; two separate stints on the disabled list) and Aaron Hicks (38 games missed) for significantly long periods.
Each of the players are working on getting back to the club, but which one will have the biggest impact as the Yankees push for a postseason berth?
Bird hopes to put rough start behind him
Bird figured to be a large part of the club's success after an impressive run in spring training.
However, he went through a dismal 6-for-60 spell to open the season, eventually succumbing to pain in his right ankle which had bothered him since the end of spring training. After pain management and rest didn't work, the medical staff finally found a bone that was causing the problem and had it surgically removed.
Bird hopes to get into rehab games after the Yankees' upcoming homestand concludes.
In Bird's stead, the club turned to Chris Carter, who failed to produce and was ultimately released. In all, the Yankees have started eight players at first base besides Bird. Most recently, Chase Headley has filled the role admirably (Garrett Cooper is up to get sporadic starts against lefties), but the club still ranks 27th among all 30 teams in OPS+ (73 with 100 being average) from the position.
The Yankees could certainly use the potent left-handed bat Bird provided in 2015 and during the spring in a lineup that is heavily right-handed in the power department. Bird's proclivity to draw walks would also benefit a team that currently swings too freely. Headley has been solid as a fielder considering he is learning first base on the fly, however Bird's glove would stabilize the Yankees defense at the position.
Will Castro stick this time around?
Whoever the culprit, the Yankees or Castro, the second baseman was brought back from his hamstring injury too early the last time around., so his timeframe for a return is not clear.
With Castro out, Ronald Torreyes has handled a bulk of the starts with Tyler Wade receiving playing time against some right-handed pitchers. Torreyes has had some fine moments at the plate and in the field, but ultimately, he is better served to the team as a utility player. As for Wade, he has looked overmatched for much of his time in the majors this season.
Castro was in the midst of a very good offensive season before going down with the injury the first time around - .313 AVG, .348 OBP, .486 SLG, 52 R, 12 HR and 45 RBI in 337 PA. When Castro returned, he didn't look right from the start when running the bases, but he tried to push through it. Unfortunately, he was back on the DL within a week.
The Yankees have to be certain the hamstring is 100 percent before Castro is allowed to participate in rehab games and ultimately return to the club.
Castro provides the Yankees a streaky bat with power at the bottom third of the order, something they lack with Torreyes. Castro's not a defensive highlight creator, but he is adept at the position where he's not a downgrade over his replacements in the field.
Which Hicks comes back to the Yankees?
When Hicks went down with the oblique injury, it stifled what was shaping up to be the best season of the 27-year-old's career. Hicks put everything together early in the season as part of an outfield rotation, eventually wrestling the starting role from Jacoby Ellsbury.
When Hicks began his time on the disabled list, he was slashing .290/.398/.515 with 10 homers, 40 runs, 37 RBIs and seven stolen bases in 242 plate appearances. Hicks being a switch-hitter - and producing well from both sides of the plate - made him the optimal No. 2 hitter behind Brett Gardner.
Ellsbury and Clint Frazier have received a bulk of the time in the outfield with the latter keeping the veteran on the bench most days courtesy of a hot start. However, Frazier's production has taken a dramatic plunge, and Ellsbury simply has not played enough to make a realistic judgement call on his ability to help down the stretch.
Hicks' return gives the Yankees a top flight centerfielder, and moves Gardner back to left field where he is strongest at this stage in his career.
What remains to be seen with Hicks is whether or not he comes back as the upside version of himself or the player who last season - and in his time with the Twins - was unable to reach his max potential.
Whose return makes the biggest impact?
In my opinion, it is fair to suggest that each player's return should provide a boost to the club.
In Bird's case, the Yankees get more power and stronger defense than they receive from Headley/Cooper. However, of the trio, Bird was performing well below expectations, to the point that expecting him to excel over the season's final month might be unreasonable.
With Castro, the Yankees increase their power potential and overall offensive production from second base while maintaining average defense at the position. Castro is not going to help the club's free-swinging tendencies, but his ability to get red hot is something Torreyes/Wade cannot provide.
Hicks gives the club its best option to hit second in the order, which shifts the rest of the lineup into better fitting slots. Further, Hicks appreciably improves the outfield defense. Assuming he picks up where he left off, Hicks ticks off all the Yankees' needs, making him the player with the best chance to make a significant impact down the stretch.