Continuing our position-by-position look at the Yankees heading into spring training, we’ll move over to first base, where the Yankees have fully committed to a guy who used to be one of the best first basemen in baseball. Question is, how good is he going to be — and how healthy is he going to be — going forward?
Top of the depth chart: Mark Teixeira
Backup options: TBD
Also coming to camp: Russ Canzler (Kelly Johnson, Tyler Austin, Corban Joseph and Ramon Flores also have some 1B experience)
Deeper in the system: Greg Bird, Kyle Roller
Before the 2009 season, the Yankees committed to Mark Teixeira as their first baseman of the present and the future. Teixeira signed an eight-year deal and immediately finished second in MVP voting while helping the Yankees to a championship. But it’s been downhill since then. Teixeira’s OPS has dipped each year since his Yankees debut, and last year he missed nearly the entire season with a torn tendon sheath that required surgery. He’s still working his way back, hitting indoors and hoping his full strength returns and lets him drive inside fastballs. Other players have come back from similar injuries, but the wrist is a big deal for hitters, especially one who at this point badly needs to hit for power to remain an offensive weapon.
Lingering question: What can the Yankees expect from Teixeira?
It’s the obvious question because it’s the biggest question. Teixeira has said that his rehab is going according to schedule, but he’s also in the early stages of hitting, and he’s not planning to participate in the first few games of the exhibition schedule. At this point, it’s hard to expect Teixeira to suddenly become and MVP-type, all-around hitter — it’s been four years since he last batted better than .256 — but the Yankees need his switch-hitting power and his Gold Glove defense.
Worth watching this spring: Anyone who’s getting time at first base
Other than Teixeira, the only true first baseman invited to big league camp is Russ Canzler, and even he is more of a four-corners utility guy than an everyday first baseman. The Yankees don’t have an obvious backup at the position, and even assuming Teixeira is 100 percent, the team will need someone to give him a day off every now and then. Is one of the veteran outfielders going to take some reps at first? Maybe Kelly Johnson or one of the other third base candidates? Maybe Brian McCann? Beyond who’s second on the big league depth chart, it’s worth monitoring who’s on track to get significant first base time in Triple-A. Who could slide into the everyday lineup if Teixeira’s not able to play for some reason?
Best-case scenario: Back to 2010
Expecting a return to Teixeira’s 2009 slash line seems overly optimistic. I suppose it’s possible, but it’s far more practical to focus on the 2010 season. That year, Teixeira hit .256/.365/.481 with 33 homers and 108 RBI. He got on base enough to lead the league in runs scored. Even 2011, when his OBP went down but his slugging percentage went up, wouldn’t be a bad year. Basically, the Yankees need Teixeira to be a slugger and a defender. His offensive approach seems poorly suited to beat the inevitable defensive shift, but if he can hit the ball in the seats, that won’t matter.
Worst-case scenario: No power and a low average
Here’s the problem with that wrist injury: if it’s sapped Teixeira’s power, then his greatest offensive asset is a pretty good eye and a patient approach at the plate. That might be nice for a utility infielder, but it’s not much for a first baseman. His defense should be just fine, and that’s an obvious plus, but if Teixeira is no longer able to drive the ball, then his lower batting average will be even more problematic. And frankly, the Yankees don’t have an obvious replacement waiting in the wings. They need Teixeira, or else they’ll likely need to go shopping.
Keep an eye on this year: Greg Bird
One of the emerging prospects in the Yankees minor league system, my old friend Patrick Teale at his excellent Pinstripes Plus website picked Bird as the top prospect in the entire system, one spot ahead of the usual choice, Gary Sanchez. Bird is a converted catcher who, at 20 years old hit .288/.428/.511 in Charleston last year. He has an advanced approach and great eye at the plate, and his power numbers jumped in the second half (of his 20 home runs, 15 came after the all-star break). If he spends one year at each minor league level, Bird will break into the big leagues exactly when Teixeira’s contract expires.
Associated Press photos