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Yankees position analysis: Can injury-prone centerfielder Aaron Hicks stay on the field?

Yankees Aaron Hicks (31) reacts in the fourth

Yankees Aaron Hicks (31) reacts in the fourth inning in Game 5 of the ALCS against Houston Astros on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, at Yankee Stadium. . Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

During this pandemic-induced baseball hiatus, we examine the Yankees position by position. We already covered first basesecond baseshortstopthird base and catcher. Now, centerfield.

The starter: For now, Brett Gardner. Later in the season, if there is a  season, it will be Aaron Hicks (the Yankees hope).

The Yankees signed Hicks, 30, to a seven-year, $70 million extension early in spring training in 2019, a move that kept him from the free-agent market, which he was due to hit after the season. The move raised a few eyebrows outside the organization — not because Hicks’ talent level made him undeserving of the investment but because of questions about his ability to consistently stay on the field.

Right on cue, soon after agreeing to the extension, Hicks got hurt. He played only 59 games last season, and in the offseason, he had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow that would have kept him out at least until June.

Since he joined the Yankees before the 2016 season, the most games Hicks has played in a season is 137 in 2018. Hicks, like other injured Yankees, has continued rehabbing during the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  During an interview with the YES Network late last week, Aaron Boone said Hicks is undergoing physical therapy three times a week in Arizona, throwing regularly and swinging a bat. Without setbacks, he should be ready for a late June or early July return, though it’s anyone’s guess what MLB's timetable for a return will be.

The other options: It's Gardner, a Yankee for his entire career who  agreed to a one-year, $12.5 million contract (with a team option for 2021). The 36-year-old is coming off his best offensive season, one in which he reached career highs in homers (28), RBIs (74) and OPS (.829) in 141 games, which stood out in a season in which the Yankees placed an MLB-record 30 players on the injured list. Of those 141 games, 98 were in center.

Though age has taken the inevitable toll on Gardner’s legs, for the moment, he’s still the best option for center until Hicks gets back. Mike Tauchman, among the handful of Yankees who turned in surprising 2019 seasons when given a chance at regular playing time because of the plague of injuries, played 14 games in center and proved capable. In a pinch, Tyler Wade can play there.  

The future: By virtue of the lengthy extension he signed in 2019, the plan is Hicks, but if his durability continues to be an issue, the Yankees will have to look elsewhere. They’ll likely have to start outside of the organization, as most of the club’s top centerfield prospects are a few years away, but there are some standout prospects at the position in the minors.

The one causing the most excitement hasn’t played a game in the system yet. That would be switch-hitting Jasson Dominguez, signed in the international draft out of the Dominican Republic last July for $5.1 million at the age of 16. Many international scouts regard the 5-10, 190-pound Dominguez, who turned 17 on Feb. 7, as a true five-tool talent. His march through the Yankees' system will be as closely chronicled as any of their top prospects in recent memory.

A once-touted prospect whose light has dimmed somewhat the last couple of years — primarily because of an assortment of injuries and lack of discipline at the plate — is Estevan Florial. Considered one of the jewels of the 2014 international draft, the lefthanded-hitting Florial finished last season with high Class A Tampa and  probably will start this season with Double-A Trenton. While his progress hasn’t been what many expected, it’s worth remembering that Florial is only 22.  

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