For the last three seasons, the Yankees have had one of the worst first base situations in baseball.
Greg Bird’s injury history has a lot to do with it. The team is 27th in first base WAR since the start of 2016 with Bird missing all of 2016 and parts of the last two seasons.
While the team still didn’t get elite production at first last season, they were middle of the pack thanks to the unexpected mashing of Luke Voit. The Yankees were 16th in 1B WAR last year and Voit produced 1.9 of it in just 39 games.
However, Voit is far from a sure thing. He had a remarkable 148 plate appearances last year and some projections are bullish on his production, as Bobby noted recently, but is he really a middle-of-the-order masher? There’s a strong chance he’s just a flash in the pan.
And if Voit is a flash in the pan and Bird can’t get back on track, what do the Yankees do? What’s the backup plan? Certainly, they’ll each get every opportunity to win the job, particularly Bird as the lefty-power hitter the lineup needs. But what’s the backup plan?
That’s worth trying to suss out.
1. D.J. LeMahieu
When the Yankees signed LeMahieu in January, it was with the idea that he would be a multi-positional player who could fill in all around the infield. In theory, that’s great. He’s played all the positions before … in 2014.
Since 2014, LeMahieu has been a Gold Glove second baseman and nothing but. He hasn’t played another position and it’s a tremendous question mark whether he can maintain his value as a steady glove when moved to the corner infield. Would his range be a real asset at first? There’s even the question whether his unfamiliarity at first could make him a negative there.
The fielding questions come long before you dive into his hitting. Outside of his batting title in 2016, he’s been a mediocre hitter and worse outside Coors Field. That sounds like more of the same from what the Yankees have gotten at first base.
Then there’s the doomsday scenario: What if Troy Tulowitzki can’t stay healthy or produce while both Voit and Bird fail in short order? LeMahieu would need to shift over to second base to help cover Tulo, forcing the Yankees into keeping a below-average first base situation. Unless you move someone else across the diamond…
2. Miguel Andujar
In that doomsday scenario, Andujar would still need to play third base. But let’s say the team can shift things around and Andujar becomes the backup at first base. Can he even play the position?
Andujar’s foibles at third base are well documented. He struggled on reads, was slow in making throws and didn’t have the proper footwork, leading to errors or balls skirting through the infield. Moving him down the defensive spectrum to first base eliminate some of his throws but places him back into an unfamiliar spot with balls coming at him just as quick. In terms of scooping balls at first, he can’t be too familiar, though that’s hardly a deal breaker after watching Voit butcher a few throws.
Andujar can at least hit the part at first base, but it doesn’t sound like the team is too keen on trying him opposite the hot corner. In his introductory spring press conference, Aaron Boone shied away from committing to Andujar playing any first this spring, so thrusting him into action in the regular season becomes almost out of the question.
So who’s after Andujar?
3. Other in-house options
On the active roster, Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine have first base experience in the majors. Sanchez only played three innings there in 2017 and didn’t look all that comfortable. Romine rated well by UZR in 80 innings across 2016 and ’17, but he doesn’t hit at a level of an everyday player.
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are likely destined for first base and DH duties late in their career but not in the short term. Both play a capable corner outfield at this stage and neither has first base experience.
In the upper minors, there’s no intriguing prospect. Mike Ford and Ryan McBroom have each hit well in Trenton and Scranton over the last couple years, though each is past prospect status in their late 20s. Could either go on a Voit or Shelley Duncan-style streak in the Majors? Sure! But sustained success is questionable, even if Ford could give you some two-way dreams.
If all else fails, what about outside the organization?
4. Trade or free agency
There was one big fish — Paul Goldschmidt — on the trade market this offseason and he’s been reeled in by St. Louis. The rest are slim pickings.
Free agency doesn’t do much better. Brad Miller is three years removed from a 30-homer season and hasn’t been all that productive since in addition to some fielding woes. Logan Forsythe played a little first for the Dodgers the last two years, but he hasn’t hit enough to justify a signing. Beyond them, want a flyer on Logan Morrison? Hanley Ramirez? Meh.
By July, there might be a few more first base options popping up. A Wilmer Flores or Justin Bour might be available, as could a reunion with new Marlin Neil Walker. The only name that stands out would be Giants first baseman Brandon Belt.
At 30, Belt is no longer a spring chicken and has struggled around injuries since his 2016 All-Star appearance, albeit while still posting above-average numbers. His plate discipline and glove play in any park and his lefty bat might play especially well at Yankee Stadium. He’s signed for three more seasons at $17.2 million per year, so he wouldn’t come cheap.
If the Yankees are going to finally get better-than-average production from first base, it’s going to be Voit or Bird. The team’s other options are few and murky at that, so riding it out with that combo is the hand the Bombers are forced to play.
It might turn out great! Bird is finally coming off a healthy offseason and Voit could be for real, at least to an extent.
But even if the Yankees need to carry a less-than-stellar first baseman, they can survive just like they have the last few years. Bird and Voit were key down the stretch the last two years and a power-hitting first baseman certainly helps, but it’s hardly a requirement for winning a championship. Still, it’d be nice if it works out.