Closing Time: Aaron Hicks gets another chance

It’s been a fun spring for Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks (right) this year (AP)

The Yankees have the best offense in the American League this year, and it hasn’t been close. Whatever you want, this lineup does it. New York is first in the AL in runs, second in average, first in OBP, first in slugging. Stand back and watch them mash.

With that in mind, you want Aaron Hicks on your fantasy team. He’s been outstanding when called upon, and with Jacoby Ellsbury suffering an injury Wednesday, Hicks should be in the mix for a while.

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We’ve written up Hicks a few times during the years, and at least once earlier this spring. It’s one of those post-hype stories that draw you in. Hicks went 14th overall in the 2008 draft, had a few splashy moments with the Twins two years ago. But a horrible debut with the Yankees last year knocked the steam out of the story.

Hicks has been a semi-regular this season, with impressive results. He’s homered eight times, stolen six bases, in a modest 103 at-bats. A .291/.426/.573 slash gets your attention, and you love 24 walks against 22 strikeouts. Anyone who’s walking more than they strike out is controlling their at-bats, forcing good things to happen.

The Yankees, deep as they are, haven’t had a regular spot for Hicks. He’s essentially been the fourth outfielder, behind emerging Aaron Judge, surging Brett Gardner, and rebounding Ellsbury. Matt Holliday has been the primary DH, with Chris Carter and Greg Bird hacking at first base. Bird (ankle) is currently on the DL, might be back in June.

Alas, Ellsbury suffered a concussion and neck sprain in Wednesday’s win over the Royals, and was immediately placed on the 7-day DL. This buys Hicks some time to make an impression. Perhaps Ellsbury will be back soon; maybe someone else will be hurt, or slumping, by the time the roster gets glutted again.

I’m surprised the Yankees haven’t been more proactive with Hicks’s playing time, but maybe it’s a case of not wanting to fix what isn’t broken. Holliday is no Keith Hernandez at first base, but he can play there some of the time (he’s done so in NL parks this year). This would open up the DH slot as a rotating semi-rest for other players (perhaps the glut of outfielders). It would also put Carter on the bench, where his .209/.305/.385 profile belongs. He’s the one dead spot in this lineup.

Bottom line, this is a good time to kick some Hicks tires, see if he can get some traction going. Playing time isn’t guaranteed for the long term, but the stats speak for themselves. Sometimes these things have a way of playing themselves out. Hicks is free to add in about half of Yahoo leagues.

• New York won’t be playing Thursday — the Yanks and Royals have already been washed out — but on the other coast, we’re looking at Sonny Gray Real Estate.

The Marlins offense isn’t an easy mark when it comes to strikeouts — it ranks 21st in that category. But you wouldn’t know it Wednesday in Oakland. Gray had command of his peak stuff, and it was pretty to watch.

The stats were almost too good to be true: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 11 K. Gray only needed 88 pitches. Eight of his 11 whiffs came on swinging strikes, which underscores how dynamic his stuff was.

I didn’t have many expectations for Gray two months ago. He was awful in 2016 (5.69 ERA), he had a lat problem this spring, and I generally tend to be distrustful of smaller starting pitchers.

But there’s a lot to like about Gray’s five-start profile this year. He’s spiked his swinging-strike rate, he’s getting more swings outside the zone, he’s throwing more first-pitch strikes. His slider, which was surprisingly a minus pitch for him last year, is darting again. Actually, all four of his main pitches (fastball, change, curve, slider) currently grade as plus offerings.

Add it all up and we get a 3.34 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, with 3.5 strikeouts for every walk. His xFIP and SIERA are almost identical to his front-door ERA.

Gray’s in the Circle of Trust until further notice. A slumping Cleveland team isn’t going to push me off the story next week. Then it’s a start against Washington, dangerous business — but you have to like what Gray’s shown us to this point. I’ll be using him on my seasonal rosters.

• As far as Jose Berrios goes, no new tale to tell. Minnesota’s pitching phenom is assembling a juicy highlight film every time he pitches. I actually thought his second start was the best of the three, by far, but perhaps he received more attention Thursday at Baltimore because of the timing of the game. In any event, enjoy your third straight victory, and enjoy some Berrios Wiffle Ball video.


Berrios draws the challenging Astros on Monday; mark your calendars, get your popcorn ready. It’s the first of a two-start week, with the Angels waiting on the weekend.

• Berrios isn’t the only reason to watch that Houston-Minnesota game. Astros righty Charlie Morton is having an interesting semi-breakout. A 4.06 ERA and 1.37 WHIP might not sound like much, but he’s pushed his strikeout rate over one per inning. His peripheral-suggested ERAs are much better than the 4.06 mark.

We used to know Morton as a grounder-heavy veteran who pitched to contact and struggled with left-handed batters. An occasional streamer, that’s about it. This year, the story has a different tilt. The ground balls haven’t been quite as plentiful, but Morton is doing much better against the lefties, in part because of an improved curveball.

To be fair, home runs are also an issue — that’s why Morton has a 4.06 ERA against a 3.42 xFIP. But with platoon improvement and a new approach, this is a pitcher to watch. Houston’s obviously a good club — with a deep bullpen — and our 2017 search for pitching has been more taxing than usual.

Morton can be added for free in about half of Yahoo leagues; in the other half, maybe he’s worth trading for, a possible buy low. Your mileage may vary.

• The Washington bullpen has seen a series of collapses, but maybe Koda Glover is ready to take the closing gig and run with it. Dusty Baker gave Glover the green light Wednesday, and the seasonal stats line up (14 IP, 12 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 11 K). That’s a 2.57 ERA, a 1.00 WHIP, and a fastball in the 96 mph range. Glover worked a tidy ninth inning in Wednesday’s 5-1 win, though it was not a save situation.

Glover is already long gone in the aggressive save-chasing leagues, but you can make the add in some other formats. He currently stands at 37 percent. I think Washington finally has a ninth-inning answer that will stick.

• If you can’t get to Glover, maybe you can throw something at the San Diego bullpen. Brandon Maurer has been a mess of late, and Brad Hand closed, despite three baserunners, in Wednesday’s win over the Mets.

Hand has the better seasonal numbers by far, though he’s also left-handed (sometimes that works against a possible stopper). And with the Padres miles away from contention, of course, both of these guys should be on the trading block later in the summer. In any event, you can say Aloha to Mr. Hand in 85 percent of Yahoo leagues.