The Yankees' youth movement will be in full effect in right field this season. The club will give long-time prospect Aaron Judge a chance to win the role full time with the initial fallback option being former first-round pick Aaron Hicks. If it gets beyond these two players, the Yankees could be forced to institute a revolving door of right fielders in 2017.
How they fared in 2016
After the Yankees traded Carlos Beltran, the club called up Judge, who was in the midst of a fantastic season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In 410 plate appearances across 93 games with the RailRiders, Judge hit .270 with a .366 on-base percentage and a .489 slugging percentage. Judge drilled 18 doubles, launched 19 home runs and drove in 65 runs.
The results in the big leagues did not translate after Judge launched a home run in his very first MLB at-bat. In 84 at-bats (95 plate appearances), Judge struck out an astounding 42 times. He ended up with a .179/.263/.345 slash line, with four home runs. Judge missed the final 18 games with a right oblique injury.
The Yankees hoped that Hicks would fill voids across the outfield for days off and injuries. The club especially believed that Hicks would be an asset as a right-handed hitter against southpaw pitching. Unfortunately, the inconsistent reps at the plate seemed to hurt Hicks.
Hicks finished the season with a .207 batting average, .281 on-base percentage and .336 slugging percentage while collecting 22 extra-base hits in 361 plate appearances. The switch-hitting Hicks' OPS was significantly better against left-handed pitching (.691) than right-handed pitching (.481). The spread was not unexpected, but the values were much lower than hoped from both sides of the plate.
Hicks played decent overall defense, saving four runs while playing in all three outfield positions, with right field being his best position (three DRS).
How will they fare in 2017?
Judge, who will be playing most of 2017 at 25 years old, has shown the ability to build on disappointing starts to action at the next professional level, most recently at Triple-A. The hope is that he can do the same after his performance with the Yankees late last summer.
Judge has a good batting eye, but such a wide strike zone due to his massive 6-foot, 7-inch frame, so the strikeouts might always be an issue. What matters is the number of strikeouts. Will Judge strikeout 200 times across 600 plate appearances or 120? There is a significant difference to a player's overall production based on the top and lower measures.
I'm willing to be optimistic that Judge can once again "figure things out" as he enters the second season of his next level. The question for me is will he be ready to show the improvement in spring training, or will he go the same route of Gary Sanchez in 2016, and begin the season in Triple-A with a promotion later in the season?
For the sake of projections, I believe Judge's upside for the upcoming season is a batting average of .260 with a .340 on-base percentage and a .440 slugging percentage. The counting stats he accumulates in 2017 will depend on when - and whether - he claims the full-time role.
As for Hicks, his success is completely linked to the amount of plate appearances he will receive and how consistently they come. Hicks seems to be the type of player who needs to receive consistent reps in order to find and maintain a groove at the plate.
Once again, there is a chance that Hicks will be the fourth outfielder, and in the scope of things that works out best for the Yankees. However, in my opinion, Yankees manager Joe Girardi has to give Hicks a larger role early on in the season to see if he is the right person for the extra outfielder role going forward. That is especially true if either Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury show signs of struggles against left-handed pitching. At a minimum, Hicks needs to spend one day per week at each outfield position. Such a system is as much for his sake as for the purpose helping the starters stay healthy and strong.
If Judge falters in the spring, forcing a start in Triple-A, and Hicks has a strong spring performance without injuries elsewhere, he could wind up the starting right fielder. In this scenario, the Yankees would also be able to see if Hicks can attain the upside they saw in him when they acquired him last offseason. Playing full time for an extended period would give Hicks enough leash to determine his future in New York.
In my view, if Hicks is producing a .250/.320/.400 slash line in a limited role (similar to his 2015 season in Minnesota), it provides the Yankees a player who represents a viable substitute option. The onus is on Hicks to figure out how to produce with sporadic playing time and if he cannot, the club has plenty of alternatives in the minors.
The bottom line
If all goes the Yankees' way in 2017, Judge will use his minimal 2016 MLB experience as a learning experience and put together a respectable rookie season. Further, Hicks will figure out how to perform adequately as a backup outfielder across random work days and as an injury replacement over extended periods. If neither pans out, the Yankees could see a revolving door of players in right field.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference