It was announced today that the New York Yankees traded 24-year-old catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Minnesota Twins for 26-year-old center fielder Aaron Hicks. To the casual fan, this may not seem very interesting – Murphy appeared in only 67 games for the Yankees in 2015, and Hicks spent some of the season in AAA before being called back up to play out the rest of the season in relative obscurity in Minnesota. However, this trade has a much larger scope of impact than simply two “uninteresting” player swapping uniforms. First, we’ll examine the players themselves to see what we are really dealing with, skill-wise.
New York Yankees
Aaron Hicks, 2015: 390 PA, .256/.323/.398, 48 R, 90 H, 11 2B, 3 3B, 11 HR, 33 RBI, 13/16 SB, 34 BB, 66 SO, 95 OPS+
Hicks began 2015 at AAA Rochester after hitting just .215 in 69 games at the big-league level in 2014. Through 38 games in Rochester, Hicks was slashing .342/.405/.544 with an impressive 13 doubles in fewer than 170 PA. After being called up by the Twins, Hicks failed to sustain such number (obviously) but did play at a higher level than he ever had before in the majors. A switch-hitter, Hicks showed more comfort from the right side of the plate, hitting .307 against lefties in 112 PA. Hicks also hit six of his five homers off of left-handers, despite having more than twice as many plate appearances against righties. Hicks’ BABIP was also 110 points higher vs. lefties (.258 to .368). However, it’s interesting to note that Hicks hit substantially more doubles against right-handed pitchers (10 of his 11 were vs. RHP) and struck out substantially less often (14.0 K% vs. RHP, 24.1 K% vs. LHP). While these are certainly interesting anomalies, I think it’s safe to say that Hicks provides more value against righties than lefties. Hicks’ defense was pretty solid in 2015 as well, spending the majority of his innings (761.2/849.0) in center field, where he posted above-league-average numbers in fielding percentage, range factor per 9 innings and range factor per game. He ranked 11th out of 27 players with more than 750 innings in CF this season in terms of UZR (ultimate zone rating) at 3.9. However, according to UZR, most of Hicks’ value comes from his arm – he did have 8 assists from CF and 9 total this season – and he actually has below-average range in center. At the end of the day, fWAR rates Hicks as a pretty good fielder, providing 2.4 wins with his defense. In summation, Hick’s biggest strengths are hitting vs. LHP and playing CF.
John Ryan Murphy, 2015: 172 PA, .277/.327/.406, 21 R, 43 H, 9 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 0/0 SB, 12 BB, 43 SO, 103 OPS+
Murphy was limited to backup duty behind Brian McCann in New York this season, but performed pretty well given his backup role. However, the Yankees made a deliberate effort to get Murphy more PA against LHP due to the fact that he is RHH and McCann is a LHH. Murphy experienced a bit of success in that role, hitting nine of his thirteen XBH (including 6 of his 9 2B and all 3 HR) off of lefties, finishing with a .770 OPS and a 113 sOPS+ (which measures the hitter’s performance for a certain split relative to the rest of the league for that split). Murphy, interestingly enough, ended the season with the same amount of PA vs. LHP and RHP, which makes it easy to compare his ability against each. He hit for better power against lefties (as we just saw), but better average against righties thanks a BABIP that was more than 70 points higher (.393 to .321). Either way, Murphy looks to be a pretty viable hitters against either handedness – although his BABIP against righties will likely not stay up near .400 in a larger sample size. Defensively, Murphy was slightly below average, posting a fielding percentage one point below league average (.993 to .994) and throwing out 28% of runners against a 32% league average. According to fWAR, Murphy was worth -2.0 wins due to his fielding alone, and posted a DRS (defensive runs saved) of -4, which aren’t great numbers. Most of Murphy’s value resides in his bat, as long as he maintains the ability to hit both LHP and RHP moving forward.
So, now that we’ve examined each player individually, we need to look at what this move means for each team.
The Yankees now have just one other catcher with MLB experience on their roster in the form of Austin Romine, who has garnered a total of 15 major league plate appearances since the beginning of 2014 after performing poorly as the Yankees’ backup in 2013. However, the Yankees do have a young man by the name of Gary Sanchez waiting in the wings, and he’s currently tearing up the highly-regarded Arizona Fall League. Sanchez will be 23 at the beginning of next season, and is a candidate to be McCann’s backup out of Spring Training unless the Yankees decide they want him getting more PA and go with Romine as the backup to begin the year. As far as acquiring Hicks goes, the Yankees outfield become a bit congested with incumbents Gardner, Ellsbury and Beltran all under contract for 2016 and 6-foot-7 prospect Aaron Judge hoping to crack the big-league roster soon. However, Judge hit just .224 in AAA last year and there have been talks of shopping Gardner to other teams, so perhaps this indicates that the Yankees’ lack confidence in Judge, or strongly believe they will move Gardner before 2016 – or both.
The Twins free up space in the outfield with this move, making room for youngsters like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Danny Santana, Eddie Rosario, Oswaldo Arcia, and even Miguel Sano (who made a splash with his bat at 3B in 2015 but has been rumored to possibly see more time in LF in 2016). Murphy looks to be given an immediate chance to win the starting catching job in 2016, given the miserable offensive and defensive performance of veteran Kurt Suzuki in 2015. With Suzuki gone after next year, the Twins likely will look for Murphy to grow into a solid player who can be their backstop for years to come.
I like this trade for both teams. The Yankees get a solid 4th outfielder (should they decide to keep Gardner) that is more proven at the major league level than Judge is, and the Twins get younger and better at the catcher position while freeing up space for a group of young OF. In the long run, I think the Twins get the better deal here, even though the Yankees are likely going to get more return out of Hicks in the near future. However, I think that giving the Twins younger OF prospects more playing time as soon as possible is a priority in Minnesota, and getting a new catcher who can hopefully be given the reins for multiple years is also important. Luckily, the Twins accomplish both of those goals in this deal. That’s not to say the Yankees don’t get any long-term benefit here, because if they do choose to move Gardner I believe that Hicks will be a solid replacement in the outfield.
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