Now that the Yankees have been officially eliminated from playoff contention in 2023 (wait, what?!), the blame game has begun anew, with fans and analysts taking Brian Cashman to task for his misshapen roster for the third or fourth time this season (we've lost count).
But one name keeps popping up in roster failure conversations that probably shouldn't be there, considering how large the sample size of his excellent play has been in 2023.
"How could Cash think Josh Donaldson was the solution?!" You got us there, don't know.
"How could the Yankees think IKF was a center fielder? Why did they carry Willie Calhoun and Jake Bauers?!" Unclear, not sure.
"And Cash really thought it was a good idea to keep Aaron Hicks in a starting role!!" Well, wait a minute. Have you been watching the Orioles? 60 exceptional Hicks games in Baltimore have proven he did have something left in the tank, and if you're going to pay him an exorbitant sum anyway, there's no reason not to trot him out. The mistake wasn't rostering him. It was having no clue how to maximize his talents or make him believe in himself again.
We thought the Yankees took too long to cut him loose. In reality, they somehow didn't wait long enough. Pin the other slices of a messed-up roster on Cashman, but Hicks was all coaching -- both physical and mental. Either the Yankees didn't try anything, or they fumbled their instructional bag and made everything worse. But, in case you've missed the past four months, Hicks wasn't the failure here.
Yankees failed Aaron Hicks, not the other way around
And, if you have missed the entire spectacular summer of Orioles baseball, don't worry! You have a postseason full of it to watch, with Hicks toward the center of the shenanigans. Plenty of time!
Look. Mea culpa. Hand up. I was wrong here, too. I thought Hicks was done. And that's because I was holding onto a sliver of Yankees exceptionalism that has proven to be outdated. Back in the '90s and 2000s, if you couldn't hack it here, something was wrong with you. You were given a golden ticket if you were on the Yankees roster back then. Best coaches. Best teammates. Best facilities. Winning mentality. If you couldn't process those gifts and become the best version of yourself, then that was on you. You had to go.
Plenty of fans still clearly feel that way, subconsciously, these days. So when we saw Hicks recede in 2021, 2022 and the early part of 2023, it felt fair to be frustrated with his lackadaisical effort, brain farts and weak contact. "Doesn't he know how lucky he is to be here?!" we'd say. "This is the Yankees!"
But somewhere along the line, the Yankees were surpassed. First by the Red Sox and Dodgers, then by the Astros, then by the Rays, and now by an entire mini-generation of analytically-inclined front offices that run circles around whoever's pulling strings and signing checks in the Bronx. Hicks might've been unhappy and creatively stuck for any number of reasons in New York. I don't have it in me to blame the fans, but even the angriest goons have to admit booing Hicks in the Opening Day intros set the wrong tone for 2023. By this season, it had all become part of one dark, self-perpetuating cycle.
Not every player is Trea Turner, cured by an against-type reception from a Philadelphia crowd midway through a calculated standing ovation. But Hicks lost his way in 2021, post-Tommy John surgery. He struggled to regain his footing after getting his wrist repaired that spring, and played flat all through 2022. While he attempted to feel something approaching normal, he was trapped in a coaching environment that couldn't solve him and a crowd that despised him. In Baltimore -- and it began almost immediately after he left -- he's got an .844 OPS/136 OPS+. He is hitting .291, which would lead the Yankees by a mile. His arm strength is back up to the 96th percentile. He isn't hitting the ball particularly hard, but it's working for him. He's getting a little lucky.
Which makes sense. After all, he already got generationally lucky when Brian Cashman let him out of his contract to play somewhere fans didn't feel burning, baked-in hatred every time Hicks' name was mentioned. Hicks appeared to give up in New York long before it became mutual. But that's not a roster failure. That's a culture issue, and it's one which has been completely cured in Baltimore.