Who’s on First-And Do the Yankees Care
As the Yankees prepare for spring training, the lineup appears more or less settled. The only remaining questions are whether Troy Tulowitzki or DJ LeMahieu will get more playing time and therefore whether Gleyber Torres will be primarily a second baseman or a shortstop. Regardless of how that sorts itself out, it is likely that when Didi Gregorius comes back, Torres will be at second full time and one of the two veteran infielders will be gone. The other question facing the team is whether Luke Voit will carry his hot hitting from the end of last season into spring training and secure the first base job or if Greg Bird can turn his career around and win back the job that was once his.
There is no question that Voit, who hit .333/.405/.689 since the the midseason trade to the Yankees, is the better hitter now, particularly given Bird’s terrible 2018 season when he hit .199/.286/.386, but Bird will get a long look because he is a left-handed hitter on a team that tilts right at the plate. This raises a different question-how did the Yankees, in preparing for season when they are trying to play deep into October, get themselves into a situation where they need from big things at first base from a 26 year old who is coming off two injury riddled seasons during which he combined to for -0.6 WAR and an OPS+ of 81. Bird might bounce back, but at this point he is no longer a prospect and four seasons removed from the one year, 2015, when he hit pretty well in the big leagues. However, the Yankees have been unable to find a better left-handed option at first base-and don’t really seem to have been looking.
There has been some talk about using LeMahieu at first. He probably would be fine defensively there, but unless it turns out that his 2016 season, when he led the NL in batting average was not a fluke, he does not hit well enough to be a real first baseman. The paucity of internal solutions at first base is disappointing. There are several players on the team, Brett Gardner and Miguel Andujar, most prominently, but also Clint Frazier and even Giancarlo Stanton who would be able to help the team significantly if they could at least play some first base. Other than Stanton, none of these players are guaranteed to be starters in 2019, so learning the position would help their careers as well. However, none of them worked this offseason to pick up that skill, while the Yankees seem content to open the year with a failed prospect and a player who has one great half season and little else on his big league resume vying for playing time at first base.
This is not a great situation, but also suggests that either the Yankees were not trying hard enough to solve this problem or that something about baseball has changed. For many years, finding a slugging left handed part time first baseman was something any contending team could do at more or less any time. These players were not stars, but could contribute, particularly with the bat. In recent years, this has changed. To some extent that is because there are fewer of these types of players around anymore. Large pitching staffs mean smaller benches; and smaller benches mean that few teams carry backup first baseman, relying instead on other players, to fill in at that position which is still viewed as the easiest for a player to learn.
Nonetheless, it seems that the Yankees could have done more to solve this problem. Although many fans would still like to see Bryce Harper, Manny Machado or both in pinstripes before the season starts, the Yankees have been very good at addressing major needs, such as adding James Paxton to the pitching staff, as well as more minor ones like adding Adam Ottavino to an already strong bullpen and LeMahieu and Tulowitzki to help fill in for an injured Didi Gregorius. The Yankees, by contrast, have studiously ignored the first base situation. It is possible that Luke Voit will continue to hit the way he did after coming over to the Yankees late last season, but if he does not, the failure to address the first base question could come back to haunt the team. Spring training would be a good time to see if aging veterans, career AAAA players or players trying to come back from injuries, could contribute at first base. Auditioning people for the job of left handed hitting most of the time first baseman during the season is a much less appealing idea.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison