Aaron Hicks’ shocking return from the precipice of Tommy John surgery took another unexpected step Saturday when the Yankees added him to their 25-man roster for the ALCS.
Where Hicks goes from here, however, depends more on the Yankees’ performance rather than his own, especially two players in particular: Giancarlo Stanton and Gio Urshela.
Even with Hicks active, it wasn’t surprising that Aaron Boone did not start him in ALCS Game 1 against the Astros. As tempting as it may be to write in the suddenly healthy, switch-hitting, Gold Glove-caliber outfielder, Boone had no reason to be hasty with Hicks.
Not after what the Yankees already had accomplished in sweeping the Twins, with Boone going the unusual route of using the same lineup for all three of those games -- something he had done only once during the regular reason.
Boone used the same nine players for the ALCS opener but shuffled the order, opting for Gleyber Torres in the No. 3 spot and bumping Brett Gardner to sixth and Didi Gregorius to ninth (for the first time all year). Despite the Yankees’ need for constant tinkering in the previous six months, Boone mostly deferred to the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality for Game 1.
But if the Yankees stall offensively and struggle against the Astros’ elite starters, Boone now has Hicks as a potential catalyst. At his best, he is a very disciplined hitter, which is a useful skill for driving up pitch counts. That could be valuable, even if he is rusty after missing nearly two months.
The Yankees just chose to hold off on deploying him for Game 1, and Boone went as far as to say that Cameron Maybin — who homered in the ALDS clincher after entering as a defensive replacement for Stanton — would be ahead of Hicks on the depth chart for that late-inning role.
But Boone also reserves the right to change his mind. That's something he didn’t have to do against the Twins but easily could happen in this best-of-seven battle. Hicks enters the ALCS as a wild card, with his fate yet undetermined.
“It’s a little bit of an unknown,” Boone said. “I could see that role evolving. A lot can change over the course of a series. And there’s a little unknown with Aaron, obviously. He’s obviously a very good player, an impact player. And he’s healthy and sound and worked hard to get back to this point to put himself in that conversation.
“The big unknown is he just hasn’t played any games for a while. Obviously, he’s on the bench right now. We’ll see what role he plays in that. But certainly it can be a long series and I would not be surprised if he’s in there at some point.”
So what scenarios would permit that to happen? Again, if the Yankees can’t generate much at the plate, they could sacrifice some infield defense by playing Edwin Encarnacion at first base, using Stanton at DH and moving DJ LeMahieu to third in place of Gio Urshela. If they get to the late innings with a lead, Boone could insert Urshela and switch LeMahieu back to first.
Another possibility? Maybe Stanton — held to only a bloop single in the ALDS — has a rough time against the Astros’ all-righty pitching staff and that prompts Boone to turn to Hicks as a spark. The presumption then is Hicks could be used in centerfield, with Gardner sliding over to left.
Ideally, from the Yankees’ perspective, they keep winning with the same group and don’t raise any uncomfortable questions for Boone, who never anticipated having Hicks as an option. As Boone alluded to earlier, with Hicks as an “unknown” but still on the roster, that leaves the manager in somewhat of a bind. Hicks hasn’t played in a major-league game since Aug. 3, and trying to jump back in for the ALCS against the Astros is not quite the same as a mid-June matchup with the Orioles.
Hicks admitted he was home in Arizona last month, sitting on his couch, thinking he was shut down for the season before deciding to play catch with a friend in his backyard. When Hicks was able to throw pain-free, he later convinced the Yankees to give him an audition after the ALDS, and that landed him on the bench at Minute Maid Park for Saturday’s Game 1.
Any further advancement for Hicks is out of his control. If Boone eventually puts him in the starting lineup for this ALCS, that probably means something else has gone wrong for the Yankees, or just not as right as they had hoped. There’s enough for them to worry about without having to put their faith in an unknown quantity, but if that does happen, maybe Hicks can shock them again.