Aaron Hicks considers himself to be one of the lucky ones. Released by the New York Yankees on May 26, the outfielder was signed four days later by the Baltimore Orioles. That’s a difference right now of 18 games in the American League East standings.
The Orioles are in first place in the division, and with less than a month to go in the regular season, the team is on pace to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016. The Yankees, who last year finished first and were swept by the World Series-winning Houston Astros in the AL Championship series, are currently in last place. They’re trying to avoid their first sub-.500 season in 30 years and face an offseason of upheaval.
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The Yankees are paying the remainder of Hicks’ seven-year, $70 million contract that’s guaranteed through 2025 to play for the Orioles, save for the prorated minimum salary—a great deal for the Orioles.
“I got a good break,” Hicks said this weekend at Chase Field as he returned to the lineup Sunday after dealing with a back injury. “I got a chance to play every day on a winning team. That’s definitely been a blessing. We have the ability to go extremely far in the playoffs.”
Major League Baseball is topsy-turvy right now with low payroll teams such as the Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks playing well beyond expectations and vying for the playoffs —coming into the current season, the Reds and D-backs weren’t even on the map. All are athletic teams with good, young, speedy players perfectly equipped to exploit this season’s rule changes.
In 2022, the Orioles were in the hunt for a Wild Card spot until the final weeks, but losing 12 of their final 20 games took care of that. This season, they hold fate in their own hands with a slim lead over Tampa Bay in the East, but a nice margin among the teams battling for the three AL Wild Card berths. Barring a complete collapse, the Rays and Orioles seemed destined for the playoffs.
“We feel very good about it,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “We were in a pennant race last year with pretty much the same group of guys. We played pretty well last September, but fell short. This is a fun time of year. We should be enjoying this right now.”
Baltimore has gotten this far through minor-league development with the third-lowest payroll in Major League Baseball of $71.1 million. Tampa Bay is right above them at $79.1 million. Those teams are the anomaly. The Yanks are doing a lot of soul-searching right now after this failure of a season with a second-in-baseball $278.4 million payroll.
The jobs of general manager Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone are certainly in jeopardy.
“We’re going to take a very deep dive into everything we’re doing,” Yanks principal owner Hal Steinbrenner recently told the Associated Press. “We’re looking to bring in possibly an outside company to really take a look at the analytics side of what we do. Baseball operations in general. We’re going to have some very frank conversations with each other. This year was obviously unacceptable.”
For Hicks, moving from the Yankees to the Orioles has to be a real contrast. Nearly a year ago, Hicks had more than a seat to history watching Aaron Judge’s assault on 62 home runs to break the AL record held by Roger Maris. On Sept. 28 at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, Hicks opened the visitor’s seventh with a single and scored moments later when Judge hit homer No. 61 off the cement facing in left field above the Blue Jays bullpen where the cherished ball landed.
“It was an amazing season to be a part of especially being with him every step of the way,” Hicks said. “It was cool to see him have that season especially after he bet on himself at the beginning of the year. It was truly amazing.”
Judge turned down a multi-million, long-term offer on the opening day of the season and chose a path toward free agency. He ultimately signed a nine-year, $360 million contract to remain in New York, winning the bet on himself Hicks mentioned.
It’s the kind of deal Orioles owner John Angelos said recently his club could not make, considering the disparity of revenue between big and smaller market franchises. According to figures amassed by Sportico, the Yankees had gross revenue of $698 million in 2022, in contrast to $264 million for the Orioles.
“Let’s say we sat down and showed you the financials for the Orioles,” Angelos told The New York Times. “You will quickly see that when people talk about giving this player $200 million, that player $150 million, we would be so financially under water that you’d have to raise the prices massively.”
The Orioles are also in the midst of negotiations with the state of Maryland and city of Baltimore on a long-term lease and development around 32-year-old Camden Yards.
Two MLB seasons are never the same. This year Judge missed 54 of the club’s first 136 games, changing the course of the season. Judge missed nearly a month after he injured his right big toe June 3 crashing into a gate making a catch in deep right field at Dodger Stadium. He still has 31 homers in 356 plate appearances, making one wonder what might have been for him, and the Yanks, had he remained healthy.
By then, Hicks had already made his impact on a very young Orioles team. He was batting .188 when he played his way off the Yankees, a target of fan derision in the Bronx. A switch hitter, he’s at .257 with six homers and 21 RBIs in 45 games for the Orioles.
“Hicks has been a huge help,” Hyde said. “We got lucky picking him up the night after Cedrick Mullins got hurt. He gave us a huge spark when we acquired him.”
What happened with the Yankees wasn’t so perplexing to Hicks. They showed him the door just as they’ve either traded, released or waived useful players like Jordan Montgomery and Harrison Bader. Aroldis Chapman was allowed to leave via free agency.
Hicks was a valuable part of the team for seven seasons after he was obtained from the Minnesota Twins in a 2015 trade for backup catcher John Ryan Murphy. He had 27 homers and 79 RBIs in 2018 resulting in the Yanks giving him that long-term contract. Injuries and subpar play led to a diminishment of his role before he was released earlier this season. But he harbors no animosity. Hicks knows he never even came close to those kind of power numbers again.
“I feel like the Yankees did what they needed to do,” he said. “I’m not great at that role I was in, facing lefties, and just not playing that much. I felt like I needed to be playing more. They felt like I didn’t. And now since I’ve left I’ve obviously been doing pretty well.”
Hicks, at 33, is still being paid. He can be a mainstay of the Orioles for the next few seasons. It will cost the Yankees about $19 million for him to play against them in their own division—$9 million each for 2024 and 2025, with a $1 million buyout of a $12.5 million club option for 2026.
For the Yankees those sunken costs are just the price of doing business. For the Orioles, it’s an Angelos kind of deal.
Meanwhile, the immediate future is stacked in Baltimore’s favor.
“This team has the ability to go very far in the playoffs and even win the World Series,” Hicks said. “With all the young guys and veterans, we seem to be very ready for the moment.”
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