At the time of the November 2015 trade, Aaron Hicks was 26 years old and had never been a full-time player during three seasons with the Twins. He had a .225 career batting average and a .306 on-base percentage.
And yet … on the day Yankees general manager Brian Cashman traded for Hicks, he seemed genuinely excited about the possibilities.
Cashman acknowledged that Hicks had some unknowns, but then he ticked off things like foot speed and bat speed, strength, instincts, etc. He’d seen enough to trade the Twins a highly regarded young catcher, John Ryan Murphy.
This is the kind of trade baseball people love. It’s not a trade about money or contract or any of that. Instead, it’s two organizations lining up their needs and evaluations of two players.
This week when the Yankees announced Hicks had agreed to a 10-year, $70 million extension, it was more than a simple reminder that Cashman won that trade. He has won quite a few of them in recent seasons. Let’s run down the list:
• SS Didi Gregorius
• RHP Chad Green
• 1B Luke Voit
(Seeing how Voit has played just 39 regular-season games for the Yankees, it might be a tad early to award Cashman a win in this deal, but we grade on the curve.)
All these trades are a larger lesson in what the Yankees have become. Yes, they have more money to spend than any other team. Yanks owner Hal Steinbrenner isn’t about to apologize for that because building a financial behemoth is part of the legacy of his dad, George Steinbrenner.
But under Cashman, the Yankees have prided themselves on making smart evaluations of players and using every avenue to build an organization. The Yanks have baseball’s largest analytics department, but they also have a scouting staff -- both international and domestic -- as good as any.
The 2019 Yankees reflect Cashman’s good work. Just 2 1/2 years ago, with the team hovering around .500 and in fourth place in the American League East, Cashman made the difficult decision to rebuild.
OK, not rebuild in the way we typically think of the rebuild. Instead, Cashman moved two of his prominent veteran players in an attempt to replenish his Minor League system.
In trading Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs and Andrew Miller to the Indians, the Yankees received three highly regarded youngsters: infielder Gleyber Torres, outfielder Clint Frazier and lefty pitcher Justus Sheffield.
Within a year, the Yanks had a top 10 farm system and made back-to-back postseason appearances in 2017 and '18. (FanGraphs projects them at 95 wins in 2019, one less than the Red Sox, one more than the Astros.)
Their 2019 team comes in a mixture of Draft choices (Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner, Greg Bird), international free agents (Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Miguel Andujar) and trades (Giancarlo Stanton, Torres, Voit, Hicks, Gregorius).
There’s also perhaps Cashman’s biggest gamble in recent seasons: Troy Tulowitzki. He has averaged 98 games a season since 2012, but the Yankees signed him out of an offseason tryout camp, believing he could still contribute at a high level at 34.
Tulowitzki was part of an offseason shopping spree almost as notable for who the Yanks didn’t go for as who they did. They re-signed lefties J.A. Happ, CC Sabathia and Zack Britton and added Adam Ottavino to the bullpen, James Paxton to the rotation and DJ LeMahieu to the infield.
What they did not do: sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Money may have been a factor in both decisions, but more likely Cashman focused on his pitching staff instead of a lineup that belted an MLB-record 267 home runs in 2018.
Even with all their cash, the Yankees are a reminder that postseason appearances are harder than ever to buy via free agency. For one thing, plenty of elite players never reach free agency. Yanks fans were reminded of that on Tuesday when the Rockies locked up third baseman Nolan Arenado with an eight-year extension.
When the Yankees won the World Series five times between 1996 and 2009, they were led by a homegrown core: Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte.
Is a core of Judge, Stanton, Torres, Andujar and Hicks even close to being comparable? Yankees fans can hope.