Going into the 2015 offseason, it was all but guaranteed that the Yankees would trade either John Ryan Murphy or Gary Sanchez. Along with Brian McCann and Austin Romine, the team had a surplus of catchers, and plenty of needs elsewhere. An explosive Arizona Fall League performance by Sanchez may have put him ahead of Murphy in the eyes of the Yankees organization, making Murphy the expendable one. While they envisioned Murphy as their eventual starting catcher when McCann had to move off of the position in 2017 or 2018, Sanchez’s tantalizing power and upside was too much to trade away. So, the team shipped off Murphy to the Twins in exchange for Aaron Hicks.
Hicks, 26, was an elite prospect just two years ago, ranking as a top-50 prospect from 2009 to 2011 in Baseball Prospectus’ annual rankings. He was consistently one of the toolsiest prospects in the minors, but struggled to put up numbers expected of such a talented player. A disappointing 2013 and 2014 crushed his value, and going into last season a fourth outfielder appeared to be his ceiling. Hicks bounced back in 2015, though. A .256/.323/.398 slash line with 11 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 97 games isn’t spectacular, but compared to a horrible 2014 (.215/.341/.274), last season provided some optimism. Interestingly, Hicks was a different hitter in 2015. His walk rate was sliced in half, but his strikeouts also significantly decreased. Put simply, Hicks became a more aggressive hitter, also seeing 3.87 pitches per plate appearance compared to 4.23 the year before. That adjustment won’t work for all hitters, but it did for Hicks. One weakness for Hicks is his platoon split. Despite being a switch hitter, he batted just .235/.302/.359 against RHP in 2015, and .307/.375/.495 against southpaws. If he can’t hit righties more consistently, Hicks may never be able to start regularly in the outfield. It’s also worth mentioning that the Twins have accused Hicks of attitude problems in the past. Hicks still has the tools that made him a top prospect, and hopefully the one thing that held him back as a player, his bat, has improved a bit. This makes for a potentially exciting, albeit risky, player. He could continue to improve in 2016, offering 20/20 upside with an average that won’t kill anyone (looking at you, Stephen Drew) and an elite centerfield glove. At the same time, Hicks could crash spectacularly, returning to 2014 numbers. He’s a very volatile player, and his continued development will be interesting to watch. While his 10 percent and 90 percent projections are equally startling, a more reasonable expectation would be Hicks becoming a good fourth outfielder or below-average center fielder. If Hicks’ struggles against right-handed pitching does not change, he could begin to resemble 2015 Chris Young; and for 2016, Hicks will probably play the role of Young, barring a trade of Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury.
John Ryan Murphy
Like Hicks, Murphy was also once a prospect (no, seriously), just not nearly as good of one. Murphy never made it into Baseball Prospectus’ top-100 prospects, but his last year before reaching the bigs, 2013, saw him as the Yankees third-best prospect. Unlike Hicks, Murphy has been relatively successful in his early chances in the majors. Last year, in his first full season with the big-league team, Murphy hit .277/.327/.406 in 172 plate appearances, with a .258 TAv. Just three home runs was a bit disappointing, but Murphy doesn’t project to have much more than 10 home-run power. What Murphy does project for, though, is a solid average. He won’t get on base as much as you would like, but a .270 average is just fine for a starting catcher in this day and age. The offensive bar for catchers isn’t as low as it is for shortstops, but good defense and at least some offensive value is enough for many teams. Murphy did have a .357 BABIP last year, though, so expecting a .277 average next season is a little optimistic. Still, with some more development, a .270/.320/.400 slash line is a reasonable expectation. Murphy’s defense isn’t anything special, but it is at least above average. Murphy is an unspectacular player, but the chances of him becoming a major-league regular is significantly higher than Hicks’. At the same time, his upside is significantly lower than the ceiling Hicks possesses. Murphy is most likely to be a boring, but consistent and average starter behind the plate for the Twins. He isn’t exciting like Hicks, but he could be just as valuable. Then again, I’m the high man on Murphy; others see him as a backup catcher. The 24-year-old is likely to receive the majority of starts behind the plate for the Twins in 2016.
Personally, I don’t love the trade for the Yankees. I had some harsh words to say about it on Twitter (probably a little too harsh), and was met with some opposition. Most people, including me, can probably agree though that there’s a wide range of outcomes for this deal. The deal could look brilliant for the Yankees if Hicks’ strides in 2015 are real and he continues to improve, or horrible if Hicks returns to 2014 levels and Murphy becomes a solid starting catcher for Minnesota. The median result is most likely, though. In that scenario, Hicks is a solid fourth outfielder for the Yankees, and Murphy is a league-average starting catcher for the Twins. This outcome is what made me sour a bit on the trade. Based on position scarcity and overall value to the team, I’d prefer an average catcher to a good fourth outfielder or below-average center fielder. Also, trusting Sanchez as the Yankees’ “catcher of the future” is a bit iffier than having Murphy in that same position. Going into 2015, the general consensus on Sanchez was that he would move to first base. An impressive 2015 may have changed some minds, but Sanchez ending up behind the plate versus moving to first is probably still a 50/50 chance. Still, it’s easy to see why the Yankees made this trade, as the upside of Hicks is intriguing. It will take a while for the “winner” of this trade to emerge. For now, though, I’m torn on the winner, but I suppose that’s how trades should seem.
We’ll miss you, JR. It was fun!
Lead photo courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports