CHICAGO — Aaron Hicks stood in the visitors’ clubhouse March 30 in Clearwater, Florida, after the Yankees’ last Grapefruit League game and faced reporters.
After a neck-and-neck competition with Aaron Judge, he had been told earlier in the day that he would not be the club’s starting rightfielder, and Hicks admitted to being disappointed.
“I worked really hard this offseason to become the rightfielder,” he said that day. “It didn’t work out.”
He allowed himself a day or two to stew over being beaten out for the job by Judge (not that he held it against him; Hicks said Judge “did everything you’re supposed to do”). He then set his sights on being prepared for whatever came his way.
That, as it turned out, has been a rotation system of sorts in the outfield in which Hicks has played all three positions. And it’s fair to say he has responded nicely.
Entering Sunday night, Hicks had a .355/.468/.710 slash line, six homers and 15 RBIs in 22 games. He went 4-for-5 with a three-run homer in Saturday night’s 11-6 rout of the Cubs. Hicks, who started in leftfield for Brett Gardner on Sunday night against lefthander Jon Lester, entered the game in a 10-for-20 stretch.
“We talked [coming out of spring training] about rotating these guys and finding time for Hicksie,” Joe Girardi said. “He has played well all year. And I’ve said it over and over: I give him a lot of credit because he wasn’t happy when we left spring training, but he’s getting plenty of at-bats and [producing].”
Judge said he’s taken notice of how Hicks responded. “He’s been a professional,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if he’s in the lineup or not in the lineup, he’s still getting in the cages, still doing his early work, still doing everything he needs to do to prepare for the game and be ready to go.”
Though it’s early — always the caveat at this point of a baseball season — Hicks seems to be tapping into the potential scouts have long seen in him.
Hicks, the 14th overall selection of the Twins in 2008, made his debut in 2013 and was a career .225 hitter with a .306 on-base percentage when the Yankees traded catcher John Ryan Murphy for him during the 2015 general managers’ meetings.
Hicks performed to those numbers in 2016, hitting .217 with a .281 OBP. Much of the late-season attention was appropriately focused on Gary Sanchez, but Hicks, receiving more consistent playing time, hit .276 with a .339 OBP and five home runs in the last 36 games.
Judge said he’s come away “impressed” by Hicks. “He’s got the talent, everyone knows that, and now he’s really showcasing it for us this year,” he said. “He’s not getting the consistent starts like I’m sure he’d want to, but he’s out there taking every opportunity he’s getting and making the most of it.”
Notes & quotes: Matt Holliday, who did not play a game in the field during spring training, started at first base Sunday night. It was his 10th career start at first (the first nine came in 2016 with the Cardinals). “There’s some concerns,” Girardi said. “I’m willing to trade it off to get his bat back in the lineup.’’
Lester famously does not throw over to first base, and hasn’t for years because of a case of the yips, but Girardi said stealing on the veteran lefthander isn’t as simple as it sounds. “People say, ‘Why don’t you just run on him, why don’t you just run on him?’ ’’ Girardi said. “Well, he’s a 1.3 [seconds] to home. With a [good] catcher, if you run on him, you’re probably out . . . It’s not as easy as people think it is.” After leading off Sunday night’s game with a single, Jacoby Ellsbury took a huge lead at first base against Lester — and was picked off by catcher Willson Contreras.
Masahiro Tanaka threw 25 pitches on flat ground Sunday afternoon before catching a 5:30 p.m. flight out of O’Hare International to Cincinnati, where he’ll start Monday night against the Reds.