Archive for Greg Bird
First base is a weird position. Teams expect huge offensive production from first base and it’s at the bottom of the defensive spectrum despite being involved in more total plays than any position other than pitcher and catcher. You can’t just stick anyone there either. We’ve seen enough of that firsthand this year. You need offense from first but defense isn’t a huge deal, except for all those times the first baseman handles the ball.
You also rarely hear people talk about a team’s “first baseman of the future” too. There’s plenty of “this guy will be our shortstop for the next ten years,” but first base? Nope. The history of first base prospects is pretty awful as well. Baseball America ranked 37 full-time first baseman among their top 100 prospects from 1995-2005 and only five became bonafide stars: Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Todd Helton, Paul Konerko, and David Ortiz, who made his name at DH.
More recent elite first base prospects like Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak have been disappointments. Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo are the best of the top first base prospect crop since Fielder while others like Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt were never top prospects. It has historically been a tough position to project and I think that’s because it’s so offense-focused. Hitting is generally considered to be tougher to scout and evaluate than pitching because there is no “textbook” swing. A fastball is a fastball and a slider is a slider. But a swing? Good luck cracking that code.
Anyway, the Yankees are at a point now where the future of first base in the Bronx is up in the air. Mark Teixeira is under contract for another two seasons but he is becoming more and more injury prone with each passing year. His playing time at first base will only go down through injuries and time spent at DH in an effort to keep him healthy. The Yankees have gotten by (barely) with fill-in first basemen during Teixeira’s injuries this season, though I hope that isn’t the plan going forward. To just wing it whenever Teixeira gets hurt.
The Yankees currently have two first base prospect at Double-A Trenton … well, one first base and one kinda sorta first base prospect. The true first base prospect is Greg Bird, who was just promoted and has gone 9-for-30 (.300) with three doubles and three homers during his first week with the Thunder. He had a monster 2013 season (170 wRC+) with Low-A Charleston and offers the kind of left-handed power and patience the Yankees crave. Bird is a recently converted catcher though, so his defense at first can be generously described as a work in progress.
The kinda sorta first base prospect is Tyler Austin, another ex-catcher who has bounced from third to first to right field over the years. He’s spent most of this year playing right in deference to Peter O’Brien and now to Bird. Austin had an outstanding 2012 campaign (~160 wRC+) before a wrist injury marred his 2013 season (103 wRC+). The wrist problem lingered into this season and caused him to miss the start of the year, and after a few slow weeks, he’s hit .319/.362/.518 with six homers since July 1st. It appears 2012 Austin is starting to return as he gets further away from the wrist injury.
Neither Bird nor Austin is a top first base prospect like Hosmer or Fielder — Austin did rank 77th on Baseball America’s top 100 in 2013 — though they are solid prospects expected to be average or better contributors at the MLB level, assuming things work out. League average is valuable, especially when the players are making close to the league minimum in their pre-arbitration years. Austin in particular fits the roster very well as a right-handed hitter with some power who can play both right and first. Bird, as a pure first baseman, is a less perfect fit.
It’s clear at this point the Yankees will need some kind of viable backup for Teixeira going forward just because he gets hurt all the time. It’s not necessarily the 15-day DL stuff either. He’s shown a knack for those 6-7 day injuries, the ones that are short enough to avoid the DL but long enough to force the team to play a man short. The problem is that “backup first baseman” really isn’t a position anymore. No team carries a player specifically for that. They tend to carry, well, someone like Austin, who can play first in addition to the corner outfield, third base, or even catch. Think Mike Carp or Steve Pearce or Scott Van Slyke.
The assumption has been that Brian McCann will eventually have to move to first base, though continues to rate very well defensively in terms of pitching framing, throwing out runners, and blocking balls in the dirt. His bat has been a huge disappointment this season but there is no reason to move him out from behind the plate yet. Since Austin is further along in his development thank Bird and figures to start next season at Triple-A Scranton, he’ll be in position to help the Yankees as soon as next season, perhaps getting his opportunity when Teixeira gets hurt. Bird is still a year or two away and his lack of flexibility hurts his chances. If Austin hits, the Yankees will have some different ways to get him into the lineup. They can’t really do that with Bird.
Until his contract is off the books, Teixeira will be New York’s primary first baseman and that’s just the way it’s going to be. There is no reason to think they’ll bench him or relegate him to DH duty on a regular basis. It would be a drastic change from the way they’ve done business for the last, I dunno, 15-20 years. Teixeira’s injuries will give Austin and later Bird a chance to get into the big league lineup — assuming they’re worth calling up, of course — though staying there is the hard part. The Yankees have had four primary first baseman over the last 30 years and they usually go for stars at the position. The opportunity will come for both Austin and Bird in the next two years, but being a good but not great prospect with the Yankees is a not ideal. They may only be stopgaps until the next big name comes along.
Everyone is focused on Opening Day tomorrow and rightfully so, but let’s not forget the minor league season is right around the corner as well. The four full season affiliates open their seasons this coming Thursday, and obviously this is a huge year for the farm system. The Yankees need some prospects to take steps forward with their development and stay healthy following last summer’s injury and disappointment filled nightmare.
If you’re new to RAB, one of our regular features is the Prospect Watch. Every year we pick a prospect and track his progress throughout the season in the sidebar. Past Prospect Watches include Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Jesus Montero, Andrew Brackman, and Mason Williams, among others. Last season we tracked Tyler Austin, who put up a disappointing .257/.344/.373 (103 wRC+) batting line with six homers in 366 plate appearances for Double-A Trenton while batting a wrist problem. Hopefully 2014 will go better, both for Austin and the Prospect Watch.
As we’ve done the last two years, we’re going to open up the Prospect Watch decision to the readers. I used to just pick a top prospect — it was pretty easy in the cases of Hughes, Joba, and Montero back in the day — but this is better. I don’t think there’s an obvious choice this year. In fact, I think there are too many good candidates. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. Here are my eight hand-picked nominees (listed alphabetically) with their rank in my Preseason Top 30 List in parentheses. Vote at the bottom of the post.
OF Tyler Austin (4)
We’ve had the same player be the Prospect Watch in back-to-back years before (Montero) and I’m certainly not opposed to doing it again. Austin, 22, is only a year removed from his monster .322/.400/.559 (~163 wRC+) campaign, during which he hit 17 homers and stole 23 bases. It’s important to keep in mind that his wrist gave him a problem early in camp, so he will be held back in Extended Spring Training as he prepares for the season. He won’t be ready to go on Thursday.
LHP Manny Banuelos (10)
Banuelos, 23, was our Prospect Watch back in 2011, a year before his elbow starting barking. He eventually had Tommy John surgery and he has not pitched in a regular season game since May 2012. Banuelos is healthy now and will start the season on time. The injury makes it easy to forget how good he was back in the day, like when he had a 2.51 ERA (~2.18 FIP) back in 2010. Banuelos is the only pitcher nominee for the Prospect Watch, not surprising given the state of the system.
1B Greg Bird (11)
No one in the farm system had a better statistical season in 2013. The 21-year-old Bird hit .288/.428/.511 (170 wRC+) with 20 homers and 107 walks for Low-A Charleston last season, a year that bests Austin’s 2012 effort. Bird, however, dealt with a back issue in camp and he will not start the season on time. Like Austin, he will open the year in Extended Spring Training making up for all the time he lost this spring.
OF Slade Heathcott (3)
Armed with a brand new 40-man roster spot, Heathcott is coming off a .261/.327/.411 (104 wRC+) season with Double-A Trenton, hitting 22 doubles, seven triples, and eight homers while stealing 15 bases. The 23-year-old has the loudest tools in the organization and could put it all together at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, like Austin and Bird, Heathcott will start the season in Extended Spring Training. He’s working his way back from offseason knee surgery.
3B Eric Jagielo (5)
Jagielo, 21, was the first of last summer’s three first round picks. His pro debut was a smashing success: .264/.376/.451 (152 wRC+) with six homeruns in 229 plate appearances. Jagielo is slated to open the season with High-A Tampa and as a polished college bat, he should have a field day with Single-A pitching.
OF Aaron Judge (7)
The 21-year-old Judge was the second of the team’s three first rounders last year. He did not play at all after signing due to a minor quad injury, but he is healthy now and will open 2014 with Low-A Charleston. Judge is physically huge (listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 lbs.) and he has huge raw power, enough that he could become the organization’s first true prospect to hit 25+ homers since Brandon Laird in 2010.
C Gary Sanchez (1)
The system’s top prospect for two years running has not yet been featured in our Prospect Watch. Sanchez, 21, hit .253/.324/.412 (~109 wRC+) with 27 doubles and 15 homers split between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton last year, and he will return to the Thunder to start 2014. Sanchez has the best combination of power, hitting skills, and overall approach in the organization, hence his status as the top prospect.
OF Mason Williams (6)
Two years ago we following the 22-year-old Williams and he had a marvelous season, hitting .298/.346/.474 (~125 wRC+) with 11 homers and 20 steals in only 397 plate appearances. His follow-up performance wasn’t nearly as good, just a .245/.304/.337 (83 wRC+) batting line with four homeruns and 15 steals in 537 plate appearances. The raw talent is there though, Williams’ tools are right up there with Heathcott. Remember, he’ll be Rule 5 Draft eligible this winter and a 40-man roster spot is a great motivator.
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I opted not to include C John Ryan Murphy, my number two prospect, because there’s a decent chance he’ll wind up in the big leagues as a backup, sitting around for days on end. Don’t want the Prospect Watch to go unused. I was planning to include RHP Ty Hensley in this post, but his recent hernia injury will keep him out for a few weeks. Others like 2B Gosuke Katoh and RHP Luis Severino fell victim to the numbers crunch. They’ll have more chances in the future.
The poll will remain open until 10am-ish ET on Wednesday, so you have plenty of time to vote if you’re unable to make up your mind right now. I know I can’t, so you’re not alone. Here’s the poll:
Update: Poll’s closed! Thanks for voting!
When Baseball America released their annual top 100 prospects list last month, the Yankees only had two representatives, and one (RHP Masahiro Tanaka) isn’t really a prospect. C Gary Sanchez was the only true prospect to make the list but he was far from the only Yankees’ farmhand to receive consideration. In fact, nine others were within shouting distance of the top 100.
J.J. Cooper published the top 100 also-rans list today, meaning the players who appeared on the personal top 150 prospects lists of the various editors but not the final top 100. The nine Yankees: OF Aaron Judge (one vote, peaked at #150), 3B Eric Jagielo (four, 131), 2B Gosuke Katoh (one, 147), 1B Greg Bird (one, 97), LHP Ian Clarkin (one, 135), C John Ryan Murphy (two, 122), RHP Luis Severino (one, 150), OF Mason Williams (six, 90), and OF Slade Heathcott (six, 89). Seems like Williams and Heathcott were the closest to the top 100, understandably so.
One day after posting his top 100 prospects list and two days after posting his organizational rankings, Keith Law released his top ten prospects lists for each of the 15 AL clubs today (East, Central, West, subs. req’d). The NL will be released tomorrow, if you care. Here are the Yankees’ top 11, according to KLaw:
- C Gary Sanchez (68th on the top 100)
- OF Tyler Austin (85th)
- OF Mason Williams (87th)
- C J.R. Murphy
- OF Slade Heathcott
- OF Aaron Judge
- LHP Ian Clarkin
- 3B Eric Jagielo
- RHP Luis Severino
- 1B Greg Bird
- RHP Jose Ramirez (Law said he is #11 in the write-up)
Judge is mentioned as a breakout candidate (video link) who could jump not just into the top 100 next year, but into the top 25 with a strong season.
In his write-up, Law says Murphy is “going to be an every-day catcher for somebody” while Bird’s “patience/power game could make him a second-division regular down the road.” Severino might not stick as a starter long-term but his “three-pitch mix might be three pluses out of the pen, and it’s a grade-65 or 70 fastball [on the 20-80 scale] even in the rotation.” Law also quotes a scout who said Heathcott is “legitimately a crazy person,” which is kinda funny. The kid always seems to have his dial set to 11.
“The Yankees have to be excited about Venezuelan catcher Luis Torrens, whom they signed for $1.3 million in July 2012,” added Law, picking Torrens as the organization’s sleeper prospect. “A new convert to catching, Torrens took to it extremely well, with plus hands and plus defense overall, with a good swing and feel at the plate, only lacking power but likely hitting for average with good OBP when he develops.”
Sanchez is the clear top prospect in the organization right now. I’m not sure anyone will disagree with that. After him though, there really isn’t much separation between the guys Law has ranked from two through about eight. You can rank those players in almost any order and it would be tough the argue. Either way, the Yankees need better results from their minor league system and that starts with rebound seasons from guys like Austin and Williams. Both will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft next winter, so hopefully that 40-man roster spot serves as a nice carrot this summer.
MLB.com released their list of the top 100 prospects in baseball yesterday, a list that was predictably topped by Twins OF Byron Buxton. He’s the clear number one prospect in the game right now. Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts and Cardinals OF Oscar Taveras round out the top ten. Nearly one-quarter (23, to be exact) of the players on the list belong to the Red Sox, Astros, or Cubs. That seems like a lot.
The Yankees had two players make the top 100: C Gary Sanchez (47th) and OF Mason Williams (75th). RHP Masahiro Tanaka is technically a rookie/prospect, but he was ineligible for list given his already lengthy pro career. Ditto White Sox 1B Jose Abreu. Jim Callis said he would have ranked Tanaka somewhere in the 4-7 range had he been eligible. MLB.com’s list is always off the beaten path a bit and that’s not a bad thing; different opinions are good. I’m not sure if we’ll see Williams on another top 100 list this spring though.
The top 100 link includes a scouting report and video for all 100 prospects, as well as a breakdown of the top ten prospects by position. Sanchez ranks fourth among catcher and 1B Greg Bird is seventh among first basemen. There’s also a companion piece looking at the best individual tools among the various prospects.
Baseball America published their list of the top ten Yankees prospects today, and the list is free for all. The scouting reports, however, are not. You’ll need a subscription to read them. The name atop the list won’t be a surprise, but things are pretty wide open after that. They could have gone in any number of directions. Here’s the top ten:
- C Gary Sanchez
- OF Slade Heathcott
- OF Mason Williams
- C J.R. Murphy
- 3B Eric Jagielo
- OF Aaron Judge
- LHP Ian Clarkin
- 1B Greg Bird
- RHP Luis Severino
- 2B Gosuke Katoh
The feature also includes a list of the organization’s top 15 players under the age of 25 and none of the 15 are big leaguers. Can’t say I’m surprised. Those ten guys up there are the top ten and are followed (in order) by LHP Manny Banuelos, SS Abi Avelino, RHP Jose Ramirez, RHP Jose Campos, and RHP Rafael DePaula. I suspect those guys will be prospects 11-15 when the Prospect Handbook comes out in a few weeks. The notable omission is OF Tyler Austin, who had an okay year but dealt with injury problems, specifically a bone bruise in his right wrist. It forced him from the Arizona Fall League after only four games. His stock took a hit this summer.
Sanchez, who has “effortless, well-above-average raw power and an above-average hit tool,” is an easy call for the top spot, especially now that his defense has improved. After him? I don’t see how there could be a consensus. I think it’s somewhat interesting that the top three prospects all have some kind of makeup concern — Sanchez was suspended for insubordination in 2011, Heathcott has had drug an alcohol problems, Williams was arrested for DUI earlier this year and has had run-ins with coaches — despite the team’s renewed emphasis on character. In the end, talent always reigns supreme. Can’t teach it.
A few things from the write-ups stand out. Williams “adopted an Ichiro-style slapping approach” this year and didn’t show the same tools as he had last year. Like Austin, he took a step back. The Yankees project Murphy as a “potential future .280 hitter with 10-12 homer power” while Sanchez is regarded as more of a “.260-.270 hitter with at least 20 home runs annually.” Both profiles fit just fine behind the plate. As for Bird, “some scouts and SAL managers questioned his future power” despite his awesome year. The plate discipline and everything else is fine, but low-power first baseman aren’t exactly a hot commodity. Severino is said to have “raw stuff that is as good as any Yankees farmhand” with a fastball that “sits between 93-95 mph and touches the upper 90s often.” His slider was his best secondary pitch when he signed but his changeup has since surpassed it. Neat.
Heathcott and Murphy are the only players in the top ten slated to open next season with Triple-A Scranton, and I suppose there’s a chance Heathcott will be sent back to Double-A Trenton to start the year. That’s unlikely though. The Yankees didn’t have any big league ready help this past season and for the most part, that will be the case again in 2014. Their farm system took a slight step back overall but not as big as it would have been without those three first rounders. The team needed to add some impact talent and it did with that draft. Most of their highest ceiling prospects are in the low minors — the short season leagues — and will need time to develop.
Greg Bird | 1B
Bird hails from Grandview High School just outside of Denver, where he played with current Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman. As scouts flocked to Colorado to see Gausman, Bird benefited from the increased exposure. He was named the state’s High School Player of the Year after hitting .533 with a dozen homeruns as a senior. Bird committed to Arkansas.
Prior to the 2011 draft, Baseball America (no subs. req’d) ranked Bird as the best prospect in Colorado but not as one of the 200 best draft prospects in the class. He was generally considered the type of player who would benefit from three years in college before turning pro. The Yankees felt differently and selected Bird with their fifth round pick, the 179th overall selection. They bought him away from the Razorbacks with a $1.1M bonus on signing deadline day, the largest bonus they gave to a draftee in 2011.
Five questions and four answers this week. If you ever want to send us anything, mailbag questions or links or comments, use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar.
Dylan asks: If the Yankees re-sign Hiroki Kuroda next year, could they not have him start the season until end of May so he doesn’t hit a wall? They could have him get ready for the season in Extended Spring Training games. Has this ever happened in the league before for an older pitcher (besides when Andy Pettitte came out of retirement, but that wasn’t intentional for the Yankees)?
Although they didn’t sign over the winter with the intention of joining the rotation at midseason, this is basically what 2007 Roger Clemens, 2009 Pedro Martinez, and both 2012 and 2013 Roy Oswalt did. They didn’t find many offers in the offseason and waited until injuries struck and some contender needed pitching help in the middle of the year. Kuroda won’t have that problem this winter.
I do think there is some merit to the idea of holding him back until May — there was some talk of doing with Stephen Strasburg last year since everyone knew he was going to be shut down at some point — but games in April are just as important as games in September. Do you prefer to tack on the wins early or play catch-up late? The guy replacing him in April probably won’t be all that good, so I prefer the former. I think the solution would be lighten Kuroda’s workload from April through July by using off-days to skip or push back starts and take advantage of the All-Star break to give him close to two full weeks off. A phantom DL trip, basically.
Either way, I don’t like the idea of having one of the team’s best starters intentionally skipping a full month or two of the season. I’d rather just take my chances and hope he doesn’t hit a wall in that case. If you’re planning on getting say, 25 starts out of him instead of 32, I would prefer to get the 25 as soon as possible — you could always trade for pitching help at the deadline — and not run the risk of an injury turning those 25 starts into 12 starts or something.
JCK asks: If Phil Hughes dominates out of the bullpen down the stretch, do the Yankees have a chance to bring him back as a reliever in 2014? It would be nice to have 2009 bullpen Hughes in a post-Mariano Rivera world.
I think the chances of the Yankees re-signing Hughes as a reliever are small but still better than they are of them bringing him back as a starter, which are basically zero. There are only 22 games left in the season and I don’t think that’s enough time for Phil to show he can be truly dominant out of the bullpen like he was in 2009, especially since each game is so important and guys like Preston Claiborne and David Robertson will soak up the more crucial innings. Hughes might just be a mop-up man this month. Heck. Joe Girardi went to Joba Chamberlain over him last night. So yeah, I do think there’s a chance he’ll come back of a reliever, but that chance is still very small. Hard to see Phil returning to the Bronx next year in any role.
Tarik asks: Can you put Greg Bird‘s season into perspective? Is he a legitimate hitting prospect? Is 20 too old for Low-A? Thanks.
Marc asks: Is there any chance Greg Bird could fake the corner OF and spot starts at catcher? Like a poor man’s Ryan Doumit, cause his bat is legit and it would be great to get the most value outta him.
Going to lump these two together. First things first: 20 is absolutely not too old for Low-A. It’s perfectly age appropriate if not slightly young for the level (he turns 21 in November).
Secondly, Bird hit .288/.428/.511 in 573 plate appearances this year, a 170 wRC+ than was the eighth best in all of minor league baseball among players with enough plate appearances to qualify for their league’s batting title (not counting the unaffiliated Mexican League). Four of the seven guys ahead of him were in short season leagues with fewer than 260 plate appearances (including Gosuke Katoh at 172 wRC+), another was a 29-year-old journeyman in Triple-A (Chris Colabello at 196 wRC+), and the other two were two of the best prospects in the game (George Springer at 174 wRC+ and Miguel Sano at 172 wRC+). So, simply put, Bird was one of the absolute best hitters in all of minor league baseball this year regardless of age and level. He mashed.
Tyler Austin hit .322/.400/.559 (~163 wRC+) last season, which actually might be more impressive than Bird’s season considering he was promoted from Low-A Charleston to High-A Tampa at midseason. The talent pool in the second half of full season leagues tends to get watered down because all the best performers get promoted and replaced by guys coming up from a lower level. Jesus Montero‘s best minor league season was 2009, when he hit .337/.389/.562 (~169 wRC+) between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton as a 19-year-old. That’s definitely more impressive than what Bird this year in my opinion considering his age and the levels. Before that, you have to go all that way back to the holy grail of minor league offensive seasons to find a better performance in the Yankees system: 1999 Nick Johnson, who hit .345/.525/.548 with Double-A Norwich. Minor league wRC+ data doesn’t go back that far, but I think it’s safe to say that was close to if not above 200 wRC+. So yeah, Bird mashed in a way very few others have in recent years.
Earlier this week, Jim Callis said Bird has “legitimate power” while Keith Law added “he does have plus raw power,” so we have some consensus there. The Yankees would have tried him in the corner outfield before sticking him at first base if he was capable of doing it, but the back problem that moved him out from behind the plate might be making his mobility an issue. Bird has to prove he can hit at the upper levels of the minors, which makes him no different than every other Single-A prospect in the history of the universe. The offensive bar is very high for first base prospects though — it takes Prince Fielder or Eric Hosmer potential to be a truly elite first base prospect — so Bird will continue to get the short end of the prospect stick. He hit way more than was reasonably expected this season, now let’s just sit back and see what we does next year with High-A Tampa before we start worrying about where he fits into the team’s long-term plans. To be honest, Doumit pretty much sucks and I’m hoping Bird is something much better than that. Versatility is overrated.
Jon asks: With Pete O’Brien being an error machine at third, do you think he could still move to RF? He should have the arm and his bat should easily profile right?
O’Brien runs like a catcher, so I don’t see how a corner outfield spot would work. Most likely, he’ll be a first baseman/DH who can fill in at third or catcher in a real pinch. He’s a prospect because of his big right-handed power, which is something that is in very short supply these days. Righty hitting/righty throwing first baseman is not the sexiest profile in the world, especially considering there are concerns about O’Brien’s approach at the plate. The best right/right first basemen in recent history — Albert Pujols, Paul Goldschmidt, Paul Konerko, Allen Craig, Derrek Lee, Kevin Youkilis, Richie Sexson — all had disciplined approaches that upped their offensive production. More than a few of those guys (Pujols, Lee, Youkilis, Sexson) were top notch defenders as well. The only member of that recent right-right first base group who has stuck in the big leagues despite a poor approach is Mark Trumbo. Trumbo is a flawed hitter and an mediocre player overall because of his defense, but I would be thrilled if that’s what O’Brien turned into. I’d sign up for it today.
- RHP Jose Campos showed “reduced stuff and an arm action that seems destined for further injuries or a role in the bullpen.” He settled at 89-92 with below-average command, pretty much the opposite of what made his such an exciting prospect a year ago. His breaking ball and changeup are still works in progress. “This was far from an ideal look,” said Law, acknowledging Campos missed basically all of last year due to injury, “but what I saw didn’t give me a ton of hope.”
- 3B Dante Bichette Jr. is “a mess on both sides of the ball,” and Law said SS Cito Culver was “running worse than I’ve ever seen from him.” 1B Greg Bird “didn’t seem to be able to pick up anything” at the plate.
- OF Yeicok Calderon has “bat speed and a strong arm, but his hands are all over the place at the plate and the Augusta pitchers blew him up with velocity.”
- LHP Evan Rutckyj sat in the 89-91 range with a “fringy changeup and a slider at 80-82 that might give him a chance in middle relief.”
Starting this week and continuing through the end of the Spring Training, we’re going to preview the Yankees position-by-position and on a couple of different levels.
The Yankees have only had four regular first baseman over the last 20 years, so the position has become pretty low-maintenance in the Bronx. That doesn’t make it any less important though, and this summer the club will have to rely on the most recent of those four first baseman to anchor their offense and be a steadying presence in the lineup. Robinson Cano is clearly the team’s best hitter, but he can’t do it all himself.
There’s no doubt Mark Teixeira is one of the most important Yankees heading into the 2013 season. The club lost quite a bit of offense this winter and will be without Curtis Granderson for the month of April, meaning they can’t afford another one of Teixeira’s customary slow starts — during his four years in the Bronx, Tex has hit .209/.336/.386 in April and .271/.361/.525 in the other five months of the season. Perhaps playing in the World Baseball Classic this spring will break that trend, but I’m not counting on it.
Teixeira, who will turn 33 a few days into the season, has all but abandoned any hope of getting back to being the all-fields hitter he was prior to the 2010 season. The short porch in right field was too enticing and he completely changed his approach as a left-handed hitter, opting to pull the ball in the air rather than just drive it wherever it was pitched. That approach is great for power but lousy for everything else, as the shift and routine fly balls have sapped his batting average and by extension, his on-base percentage. Teixeira tried to get back to hitting to all-fields last year and the result was a lot of weak fly balls the other way, so the damage to his left-handed swing is been done. He remains an above-average hitter (116 wRC+ in 2012) but is now just a one-dimensional one.
On the other side of the ball, Teixeira has few peers in the field and is one of baseball’s best defensive first baseman. His range actually kinda stinks thanks to his thick lower half and utter lack of foot speed, but he sucks up every ball he can reach and is as good a thrower as you’ll find at the position. The total package is an above-average player but not an elite one despite his salary, and Teixeira is aware of that. The Yankees desperately need him to stay healthy and be productive this summer.
With the bench still unsettled, Teixeira’s backup right now is third baseman Kevin Youkilis. Given the team’s lack of hot corner alternatives, I’m guessing the bench will feature a more clearly defined backup first baseman such as 33-year-old Dan Johnson or even 34-year-old Juan Rivera, who played more games at first (54) than in the outfield last year (46). Either way, Teixeira has been a lock for 155+ games played for most of his career and will be counted on for that many in 2013. There will be no platoons or experiments here, Teixeira is the guy. If he gets hurt and misses a few weeks, the drop-off between him and his replacement — or the replacement third baseman with Youkilis sliding over to first — is considerable.
Knocking on the Door
Johnson could either make the team or open the season in Triple-A — I don’t think either would be much of a surprise. If he does open the year on the bench in New York, 26-year-old Luke Murton would get the call as the regular first baseman for Triple-A Scranton. Matt’s little brother hit .249/.327/.464 (117 wRC+) with 25 homers in 526 plate appearances for Double-A Trenton last year, though he isn’t much of a prospect because he struggles against breaking balls and isn’t much of a defender. The righty hitting/righty throwing first baseman is one of baseball’s weakest historical profiles, so Murton is at an even greater disadvantage. He is technically knocking on the door of the big leagues since he’ll be with the Triple-A squad, but I wouldn’t expect to see him wearing pinstripes this year or any other year for that matter.
The Top Prospect
I didn’t rank a single first base prospect in my preseason top 30 list and that’s no accident. It’s a low priority position and very few players are actually drafted and developed as first baseman. Most move there from other more high-profile positions as a last resort. Prince Fielder is the most notable exception.
Anyway, New York’s best first base prospect — 20-year-old Greg Bird — has indeed moved to the position because he couldn’t handle catching full-time due to a back injury. The left-handed hitter owns a .307/.418/.446 (~159 wRC+) career batting line since signing for $1.1M as the team’s fifth round pick in 2011, but unfortunately that performance has come in only 122 plate appearances. Bird offers power and patience and he can really hit, but he’s going to have to keep producing since he’s already relegated to the lowest priority position before his 21st birthday.
The Deep Sleeper
As I said, there aren’t many first base prospects worth knowing throughout the game in general, nevermind in Yankees’ system. Bird is their best prospect at the position by a big margin, but last summer’s tenth round pick Matt Snyder could be a breakout candidate this summer. The 22-year-old hit .299/.397/.428 (147 wRC+) with more walks (26) than strikeouts (19) in 219 plate appearances for Short Season Staten Island last year, but therein lies the rub: his season ended prematurely because of a broke wrist. Wrist injuries tend to linger and impact power output for a year or so, meaning Snyder’s breakout potential is limited.
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The Yankees are setup well at first base with Teixeira, though his production has slipped and he’s no longer the two-way force he was earlier in his career. He’s more of a great complementary player than a cornerstone, which kinda sucks because there is still four years left on his contract. The team lacks first base prospects — specifically at the upper levels of the minor leagues — but that’s not really a big deal at this point. They are going to live and die with Teixeira for the foreseeable future thanks to his contract anyway.
Other Previews: Catchers