The Minnesota Twins dealt Aaron Hicks after parts of three uninspired seasons and I’m sure many of you were like me and thought this could be a case similar to Carlos Gomez. Gomez came up as a Mets prospect. He was raw, speedy super-athlete who showed the defense for center in the minors, but he was projected to add power as he filled out. The Mets rushed him to the majors at age-21 after just three-plus seasons in the minors and he’s been a major leaguer ever since.
He was the key piece in the Johan Santana deal for Minnesota and that likely encouraged them to continue the rushed development of Gomez as they immediately inserted him into the starting centerfield role at 22 years old. After a rotten 74 wRC+ in 614 PA, his playing time was drastically cut the following season.
Unfortunately, he played even worse (64 wRC+ in 349 PA). He was traded again, this time to Milwaukee in a straight up deal for J.J. Hardy. He labored through two half-seasons upon arrival, marred by three DL stints, and didn’t look much different than the Minnesota version with a 79 wRC+ in 576 PA. Hicks’ backstory has some key differences.
He was a first-round draft pick back in 2008 and immediately hit the prospect radar projecting as a complete centerfielder: power, speed, and defense. He even had a refined plate approach right away with strong strikeout rates and excellent walk rates. The Twins didn’t rush him, though. He logged 2110 minor league PA before debuting in 2013. He was abysmal in 81 games with a 62 wRC+ in 319 PA as the strikeouts soared and the walks tumbled.
He played even less in 2014 and did negligibly better (76 wRC+ in 225 PA). Hicks had a 26% K rate and 11% BB rate through those first two partial seasons, way worse than his 20% and 14% marks as a minor leaguer. Even with the 11% BB rate, he still wasn’t getting on base nearly enough to make the speed hurt the opposition. The defense got mixed reviews from the metrics, but it definitely wasn’t standout and at least Gomez always had that as he tried to figure out hitting as a big leaguer.
Hicks showed some reasons for hope in 2015. His bat and defense both jumped up. It still wasn’t Gomez-level defense in center, but it was better than average. The bat didn’t quite reach average, but the 97 wRC+ in 390 PA was progress. The main differences between Gomez pre-breakout and Hicks so far were speed and defense. But check out their hitting:
Hicks had five fewer homers in 750 fewer PA, but Gomez had 4x the stolen bases in just under double the playing time so that’s a big edge for him. What if we isolate Gomez’s equivalent age range to what we’ve seen from Hicks in three years?
Hicks’ power edge evaporates and the only real deficiency for Gomez was OBP. But if we’re just looking at a 74 and 80 wRC+, there’s not much difference. However since we do keep seeing a sharp speed advantage for Gomez, maybe the appropriate comparison here is to suggest that Hicks could become a slower version of Gomez. Prior to 2015, Gomez had posted three straight seasons of 34+ SB. In a down year, he essentially matched Hicks (12 HR, 17 SB, 97 wRC+ for Gomez; 11, 13, 97 for Hicks).
Hicks is a switch-hitter, but it hasn’t served him well. He has a huge platoon split favoring the short side. He has a .596 OPS in 661 PA against right-handers compared to a .808 in 261 PA against lefties. This keeps with his minor league record, though it wasn’t as stark. He had a .775 in 999 PA v. righties and .834 in 496 v. lefties.
He does have a small sample of facing righties as a righty from the minors and he posted an .867 OPS in 59 PA. He’s only done it six times in the majors (.533 OPS). Maybe he ought to give up switch-hitting? Breaking pitches from righties just kill him. He has a .355 OPS in 130 PA ending on a breaking ball (curve/slider), dead-last among 141 hitters (min. 130 PA) as a righty v. a lefty since 2013.
While breaking balls kill him, fastballs from righties merely beat the crap out of him. That was dumb, sorry. He has just a .661 OPS in 355 PA since ’13, seventh out 134 (min. 350 PA). There was no zone or approach in particular that he struggled against with either pitch type, he just doesn’t hit well from the left side. He is moving to a park that could expedite any improvements he made from the left side, though.
His home run park factor for lefties goes from 96 to 138. But even if he stops switch-hitting and goes full righty, he is still getting a park boost from 100 to 122. He has the skills to maximize these park factors and become a premium fantasy option while the downside is a very reasonable repeat of 2015. The Yankees might’ve downgraded their Chris Young spot in the short-term (Young had a .972 v. LHP last year, .870 for Hicks), but they also got six years younger with a ton more upside.
I admit that the team connection alone first prompted the Gomez comparison for me, and it’s not a perfect 1:1 parallel once you dig into the numbers but I don’t think it’s too far out of bounds as a framework for Hicks’ upside with a couple alterations. Hicks will probably never be the base stealer than Gomez is even if we see a big jump from him as a Yankee in 2016 (probably some 20-25 SB seasons), but there’s some raw power to be untapped in-game that could pair with his new park and push him past Gomez’s career-high of 24 homers.
Getting to 25+ HR would require major growth versus righties. If he doesn’t quite make that leap and instead crushes lefties for 200 PA and can hold his own for 400 PA versus righties – let’s say at least a .730 OPS – then we could get a 20/20 season. I got him in the 19th round of a 15-team draft recently and I’d been considering him for about three rounds. The OFs who went in the 16th-19th rounds were: Wil Myers, Joc Pederson, Steven Souza, Marcell Ozuna, Colby Rasmus, Desmond Jennings, Khris Davis, Cameron Maybin, Rusney Castillo, and then Hicks with the final pick of round 19. Most of those guys belong ahead of him, but you can make a case for Hicks over a couple of ’em.
I could definitely see his price rising as the winter melts into spring if his playing time plans crystallize favorably with the Yankees. If he’s given a full-time job with a decent batting spot (like the 600 PA plan I outlined above), he’ll move up draft boards. But barring a trade that clearly opens up playing time or some crazy Spring Training hype job (like if he posted a 1.051 OPS again like he did in 2013 ST), I think his price will stay fair (and low). Bid with confidence, the price is right for the upside.