As the Yankees begin their organizational meetings, we’ll begin our own sort of analysis about the state of the franchise. Starting at first base — a position with one long-term contract and at least one intriguing low-level prospect — we’ll take a position-by-position look at the organizational strengths and weaknesses, looking at what’s in place, what’s on the way and where the Yankees need some help.
Signed through 2016
When the Yankees made their massive offseason splash after the 2008 season, the final piece was an eight-year deal with first baseman Mark Teixeira. At the time, he was 29 with a consistent track record of health and MVP-type production; a Gold Glove defensive player and an all-around bat that fit easily into the middle of the order. Now Teixeira is 33 — turns 34 in April — and he’s coming off a season largely lost to wrist surgery. His batting average has dipped considerably since 2009, and although he’s still productive — the power is still there — he has not been the all-around offensive force that he was in his first Yankees season. The plan is for him to be healthy again in 2014, and the first base position is clearly his. Barring some sort of winter setback for Teixeira, the Yankees are not going to be shopping for a first baseman. They made their choice five years ago, and they’ll stick with him as long as he’s healthy.
Whether because of Teixeira’a contract or because the position is relatively easy to fill, first base has not been a position of focus for the Yankees. Former first-round pick Eric Duncan stalled at Triple-A, Cuban signee Juan Miranda never showed quite enough bat for the position, and just this year, the system’s most advanced first-base prospect, Luke Murton, struggled to the point of being released. Without any ready replacements in the minor league system, the Yankees leaned on Lyle Overbay and tinkered with playing David Adams, Corban Joseph and Vernon Wells out-of-position last season. If Teixeira were to suffer a setback, the Yankees could be faced with a similar scenario next season, because they still have no obvious backup plan. Kyle Roller — who hit .253/.347/.427 in Double-A this year — is probably the system’s most advanced first baseman, but a more immediate backup plan would likely involve another Overbay-type signing.
The Yankees fifth-round pick in 2011 was a high school catcher named Greg Bird who was almost immediately shifted to first base. This year was his first in a full-season league, and Bird responded with a .288/.428/.511 slash line with Low-A Charleston. His production took a significant step forward in the second half, when he hit .295/.448/.564 in his final 68 games. Fifteen of his 20 home runs came in the second half. There seems to be some question about whether he’ll develop typical power for a first baseman, but Bird seems to have a fairly advanced approach at the plate.There’s still a lot of time for Bird to define himself one way or the other. A best-case scenario should put him on the verge of the big leagues just as Teixeira’s contract is expiring, but there are a lot of hurdles between then and now.
State of the organization
It’s curious that Tyler Austin, still considered one of the system’s more promising hitters, has been playing first base in the Arizona Fall League. It’s a reminder that a young third baseman or corner outfielder could be a future first baseman. For right now, though, the state of the Yankees organization at the position basically depends on Teixeira in the big leagues and Bird in the low levels of the minors. In between those two is a lot of uncertainty without a clear standout. If Teixeira can’t finish off his contract with three productive years, the Yankees could have a hard time finding an alternative. That said, it’s also worth wondering whether either Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter might, at some point, be better off converting to first base. For right now, though, it’s up to Teixeira to give the Yankees a productive first baseman this year and in the immediate future.
Associated Press photo