SSTN Mailbag: Replacing Judge, Why Hicks, And Moving Forward!
I was gone for roughly two weeks, and this is what happens?!? About the best silver lining I can come up with is that my newborn won't remember anything from these games, which is good because I think any human exposed to this quality of baseball for an extended period of time at a formative age would have no choice but to find baseball boring and frustrating. In the month of August, the Yankees' offense has gone from one of the best in baseball to anemic, batting .219/.297/.369. Their baserunning, which had been greatly improved this season to the point that it was a strength in the first half, has been below-average in August. Statistics for baserunning can be a bit hard to come up with in small sample sizes, but the Yankees have been successful on just 6/13 steal attempts this month, taking poor risks when they haven't had enough baserunners to begin with. The pitching staff has not been dominant like it was in the first half, but it has been better than its bottom line 4.32 ERA indicates. That number is inflated by a couple of blow-ups (I'm looking at you, Frankie Montas) and even still, hitters have produced just a 91 OPS+ against Yankee pitchers in August.
Has this been a monumentally frustrating stretch? Yes. Am even I, the resident Optimist-In-Chief, lashing out at the team? Oh yeah (you would all be amused by the contortions my face makes trying not to yell at the TV while holding my daughter). Is all hopeless? Far from it, and perspective is important. I'm not naïve, and I am also a realist and a pragmatist, but this team is not done yet. Remember, the 2000 Yankees of Subway Series fame, went 10-15 in June and 13-17 in September. Last year's Atlanta Braves were awful for much of the year before getting hot at the end of the year to slide into the playoffs posterior first. Why can it change? For one, the Yankees are about to get a lot healthier. Stanton should be back in +/- a week, and Sevy by all reports will be back the first day he's eligible in September (and multiple people I trust indicated he looked fantastic in his most recent session). Oswaldo Cabrera looks good enough that maybe the Yanks can give DJLM a few extra days to let the toe feel a little better, and suddenly Jonathan Loaisiga looks healthy and closer to the guy he was last season. I know it's hard right now, but keep the faith.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll talk hypothetically about replacing Aaron Judge, talk about the Yankees' use of Aaron Hicks (again), and try to find a path forward for this team. Let's get at it:
Fuster asks: I'm asking for my friend Paul who wants to know how the Yankees can keep from being exploited and driven into penury by that big big big bully AJ
what are the best replacements for Judge on the 2023 roster and which guy can match Judge's projection without expecting to get paid a lotta money?
This is a really simple and scary answer: there isn't a replacement for Aaron Judge, full-stop. He is one of a handful of players in baseball that cannot be replaced individually unless the free agent pool is uncharacteristically deep or you have a generational replacement player coming up through the minor leagues. None of that is the case this year, unless you think Trea Turner is that guy. Or, you know, Joey Gallo is available...
As far as I'm concerned, this is actually a scary question to contemplate. If the Yankees fail to come to an agreement with Aaron Judge, that signals to me that the beginning of a 2013/2014 style retooling could be on its way, which would be a shame. I think the core of the roster built from 2016-2018 was/is capable of winning a championship, however if Aaron Judge leaves, that window is officially closed. That doesn't mean that the Yankees couldn't retool relatively quickly, but there's almost no chance of a championship caliber roster in 2023 without Aaron Judge. That's the cold, raw truth of it.
The flip side of this equation is that I think there are a growing number of people who believe that retooling might be in order. I am not part of that faction, but I won't say that idea is meritless. I understand the hesitancy to commit huge, long-term dollars to Judge given his age, size, and potential for early breakage, but I think he's earned the money, and there's little question but that the Yankees can afford it. I've said it once, and I'll say it again: pay the man.
Mike asks: Why are the Yankees still so insistent on playing Aaron Hicks when he plays like garbage? He's costing the Yankees games with his play and its just not acceptable anymore.
Even as an Aaron Hicks apologist, I don't think the Yankees can keep running him out there right now. Mike is right: Aaron Hicks has been brutal to watch in the month of August. We'll come back to defense in a minute; for now I want to discuss his offense, which has been Jekyll and Hyde on a month-by-month basis. He hit right around league average in June, with a 102 OPS+, was excellent to start the season with a 138 OPS+ in April/March, and he was at his best most recently in the month of July, finally showing power in addition to plate discipline by batting .275/.412/.478, good for a 151 OPS+. The problem is that when he crashes, he crashes incredibly hard, as he was basically unplayable in May with a 16 OPS+ and even worse now, with an almost unfathomable -4 (!!!) OPS+. Frankly, I don't get it, and this team can't play him when he's that bad.
Here's what I question the most: why did the Yankees move him back to CF following the acquisition of Benintendi? I understand why Benintendi should stay in LF, but Judge is clearly the superior defender in CF, and it's also clear that Hicks just flat-out can't play the position anymore (I don't need to remind anyone what happened the other night). It's also pretty clear to me that Hicks presses more when he plays CF, and the numbers this year pretty clearly show that he hits better when he plays an outfield corner, with an 81 OPS+ as a centerfielder versus a 105 OPS+ when he plays an outfield corner. To me, the defensive configuration should be pretty obvious when Hicks is in the lineup: Benintendi in LF, Judge in CF, Hicks in RF.
Hicks' defensive blunders in CF also highlighted what I said regarding the Bader acquisition: an elite defensive CF makes your pitching staff that much better, and every run counts in the playoffs. Florial's shoestring catch the other night proves that point, as the Yankees couldn't have won that game without it. Bader will push Hicks out of the lineup completely, and the Yankees will be better for it.
Brian asks: What is this team's path forward this season? Can it be fixed?
Yes, it can, and the team is already doing what it needs to do: get healthy and call up some kids to inject some youth and excitement. I loved the move to call up Florial and Oswaldo Cabrera. I'm not the biggest Florial fan, but I think he'll play great defense and run the bases well for a couple of weeks, and Cabrera plays really good defense at multiple positions, runs the bases really well, and has some pop at the dish.
I'm hoping that the combination of youth and health make September and October look very different than August.