Hicks' spring focus on winning RF job

Outfielder competing with Judge, struggled in backup role last year

March 3rd, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. -- When had difficulty adjusting to life as the Yankees' fourth outfielder, he gained a new appreciation for athletes who are able to excel in part-time duty, but it's still an assignment that he hopes not to have this year.

Now in the early stages of competition to serve as the Yankees' Opening Day right fielder, Hicks said he ramped up his offseason batting program in early December, knowing that he would have to outproduce in order to avoid the bench.

"It's very hard," said Hicks, who went 1-for-3 as the starting right fielder in the Yankees' 8-1 win Thursday night. "It makes you think about the guys that come and play off the bench, it makes you think about them in a different way. Like [Ronald] Torreyes, he's able to go so long without having that many at-bats and come off the bench and get two hits. It's kind of amazing to me. It's just a different game."

The 27-year-old Hicks batted .217 with eight homers and 31 RBIs in 123 games last season, his first in New York. He showed versatility as the only big leaguer to make at least 20 starts at all three outfield positions, but said the inconsistency of the job made it difficult to lock in at the plate.

"I know it's harder for younger players to deal with it," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "First, it's hard enough just to establish yourself at the highest level in baseball in the world, but then to do it in a sporadic way is even that much harder."

Hicks showed promise when his name appeared more regularly, batting .280 (23-for-82) with four homers and nine RBIs in 26 August games after hitting just .187 (39-for-209) with three homers and 19 RBIs in 86 games over the season's first four months. A Grade 2 hamstring strain sent him to the disabled list in early September.

"I felt really good," Hicks said. "I felt like what I was doing at the end of the season was something that they were looking for me to do earlier. With not getting that many at-bats, it kind of messed me up toward the beginning, but as soon as I started getting at-bats, I started hitting the ball well."

Could that be enough to convince the Yankees to take another chance on Hicks in right field? Though many have projected the power-hitting Judge as the early favorite to start on Opening Day, the 23-year-old rookie did strike out 42 times in 84 at-bats last season and has Minor League options remaining.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that to make his decision, he will compare at-bats, defensive play and baserunning, which he sees as a better indicator than the small sample size of spring statistics.

"I think Hicks can [impress] too," Girardi said. "There's not a huge age discrepancy between the two of them. It's really who steps up and takes the job."

If Hicks starts 2017 back in a reserve role, he plans to find a better way to prepare.

"I'd definitely have to switch something. What happened last year just didn't work," Hicks said. "I would have to find a new approach and be able to help this team win."