TAMPA, Fla. — In the past two weeks, the Yankees have kept their word about locking up their current collection of young talent before they reach free agency: first with a contract extension for the staff ace Luis Severino and then, on Monday, signing a new deal with center fielder Aaron Hicks.
The deal, which is for seven years and $70 million, is the largest contract extension for the Yankees (not including re-signing free-agent players) since Derek Jeter’s 10-year, $189 million deal in 2001.
“It was a fair deal for both sides,” Hicks said at a news conference before Monday’s spring training game here in Tampa. “This is an organization I want to stay with. I want to be on this team. It has a great future.”
Hicks, 29, was scheduled to make $6 million in 2019, his final year before free agency. With his new deal, he will make $8 million this season and then see a raise to nearly $10 million a year for the next six. The deal also includes a $12.5 million team option or a $1 million buyout for the 2026 season.
When the Yankees acquired Hicks from the Minnesota Twins in a 2015 trade, he was an unrefined talent. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman praised Hicks on Monday for being receptive to information and coaching from the Yankees, while Hicks himself credited better training and nutrition for his improvement.
With a more selective approach at the plate, the switch-hitting Hicks produced the best seasons of his career the past two years. He had career highs with 27 home runs and 79 runs batted in last season despite playing only 137 games — which was another career high, as he has been plagued by injuries.
Some advanced metrics rated Hicks the sixth best center fielder in baseball the past two seasons, during which he hit .255 with an .838 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He also patrolled the outfield with one of the best arms in the sport.
“Aaron Hicks is maybe the most underrated player in the game,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said over the weekend. “He is such a valuable player, playing a premium position. As good as our guys control the strike zone, he is probably the poster child for it. And the ability to hit with power, and the speed he brings. He is really a complete player.”
As a basis for Hicks’s deal, the Yankees looked at the contracts of two other center fielders: A.J. Pollock ($55 million over four years, signed in January) of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lorenzo Cain ($80 million over five years, signed before the 2018 season) of the Milwaukee Brewers. Hicks would have reached free agency one year younger than Pollock and two years younger than Cain.
While the Yankees did not need to sign Hicks before this season, Cashman said the team had weighed the benefits of receiving a slight discount for making a long-term commitment now. But the decision still was not an easy one.
“The story is yet to be written,” Cashman said. “I talked to Aaron, ‘I’m betting on you.’ And he’s betting on himself at the same time. I believe there’s more gas in his tank.”
As the Yankees have reconstructed their roster over the past few years, they have shed older players and built around younger ones who are now becoming candidates for long-term deals. Cashman said another reason for the lack of extensions before this year was the Yankees’ desire to get under the luxury tax threshold, which they did last year for the first time since 2003, to reset their penalty accumulation. Their 2019 payroll, as things stand now, will be over the luxury tax threshold of $206 million.
Since the end of the last season, the Yankees have added $250 million in payroll commitments through free agency (including the re-signings of J.A. Happ, C.C. Sabathia, Brett Gardner and Zack Britton) and contract extensions.
“We’re hopeful when the dust settles,” Cashman said, “that there’s a big payoff — not just financially to the players and us getting security by locking in the people that we believe in — but ultimately the most important aspect is the win column.”
More deal-making could be coming. The Yankees have also discussed a contract extension with the reliever Dellin Betances, who is entering his final season before free agency.
“Whenever you have the opportunity to sign guys like that, it helps out the team,” Hicks said of the recent contract extensions. “It makes everybody a little more comfortable.”