Best case, worst case: First base • 01.23.13
The premise is pretty simple. Now that we’ve looked at the Yankees organization, position-by-position, what’s the organization’s best-case and worst-case scenario at each spot? We’ll start at first base, where the upside is significant and could make a huge difference in the way this lineup is viewed going forward.
Party like it’s 2009
It wasn’t all that long ago that Mark Teixeira was an all-star, a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glover and second in the MVP race. Oh, and he was also a World Series champion. Back in 2009, Teixeira’s first year with the Yankees, he was still one of the best all-around hitters in baseball. In addition to his defense, 30-plus home run power and good plate discipline – all of which have remained more or less in place the past three years — Teixeira also hit for a high average and had an OPS above .900 from each side of plate. About to turn 33 years old, Teixeira has not yet aged beyond that sort of offensive potential. His best-case scenario is about as good as it gets. The Yankees haven’t seen it in three years, but it’s still lingering out there as legitimate wishful thinking.
There’s also something to be said here for new addition Russ Canzler proving he can play a powerful, platoon role at the big laegue level. But, although Canzler can play first base, the Yankees best-case scenario certainly doesn’t include him getting more than five or six games at the position. If anything, it involves Teixeira staying healthy enough that Canzler’s only at-bats come at DH and occasionally in the outfield corners.
In the minor leagues, the Yankees would like to see power-hitting first basemen Luke Murton and Kyle Roller continue to hit homers as they advance, but the real prize seems to be Greg Bird, the Yankees 2011 fifth-round pick who’s been moved permanently from catcher to first base. A big year in Charleston could put Bird on the radar as a potential Teixeira replacement in four years.
A sign of things to come
At this point, Teixeira’s production seems fairly steady. Some health problems might have dragged down his numbers a little bit last season, but it ultimately feels safe to expect roughly .250/.330/.480 with 30-35 home runs. If what we’ve seen the past three years is a going to continue, at least there’s still some power and reason to think that — even in a horrible year — he could still hit 25 homers and slug .450 or so. The strength is there … unless last year’s health problems were the beginning of an Alex Rodriguez-type free fall. If we’re talking worst-case scenario, it surely has something to do with a doctor.
Teixeira eventually got his cough figured out last season, and his calf injury has had three-plus months to heal, but he got off to a horrible start last season — hitting just .229/.281/.386 into late May — and he blamed it, at least partially, on bad health. Teixeira actually slugged .518 the rest of the way, but nagging health and injury problems have taken a temporary toll in the past, and an unhealthy Teixeira might leave the Yankees longing for the version who could at least hit a home run every once in a while.
If Teixeira has to miss significant time, the Yankees best first base alternatives might be Canzler (a guy with fewer than 100 big league at-bats), Kevin Youkilis (the guy who’s supposed to be filling in at third) or Murton (a guy who hasn’t played above Double-A and whose batting average has declined year-by-year). Bird is an interesting but remarkably unproven young player, and the first basemen around him in the system — Matt Snyder and Saxon Butler — we just drafted last year and fall into the same boat: Could just as easily fall off the map as climb onto the radar. If a larger sample size against professional pitchers exposes holes in those young prospect’s games, the Yankees won’t really have a standout first baseman to look toward as a short-term or long-term replacement. If the Yankees have to turn to Tyler Austin to help at first, several things will have gone wrong.
Associated Press photos
Yankees at the break: First base • 07.13.11
A little more than two years ago, the Yankees set their course at first base by giving an eight-year deal to Mark Teixeira. He is the Yankees recent past, their obvious present and their distant future at the position.
It was kind of an unusual first half for Teixeira. He’s on pace for a career-high in home runs, but a career-low in batting average. He’s been plenty productive with the team-high in RBI, but he’s also been streaky. Teixeira has homered in three straight games four different times this year, including the first three games of the season. He has all-star type numbers, but at a position with Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Konerko and Miguel Cabrera, Teixeira was crowded out.
He’s not having the same sort of all-around season that he had in his Yankees debut, but if Teixeira keeps up this pace, he’ll probably get some of those back-of-the-ballot MVP votes. Eighth, ninth and tenth-place votes, that sort of thing. He hasn’t done much this July, but Teixeira is typically a better second-half hitter, with his best month-by-month numbers coming in August and September. Teixeira’s not going anywhere, but the Yankees have discovered that they can play Jorge Posada at first base occasionally to give him a few days off.
Jorge Vazquez is nowhere near the top prospect in the system, but he might be the most immediately intriguing. Plucked out of Mexico, Vazquez was a spring training standout, and he’s now a Triple-A all-star with the organization’s minor league lead in home runs. At 29 years old, he is what he is, and that might be enough to be productive should the Yankees find a spot for him. Lower in the minors, Charleston first baseman Kyle Roller hit enough to earn a mid-season call-up to Tampa, and the way down in the Gulf Coast League, last year’s 13th-round pick Tyler Austin is off to a strong start while playing both infield corners.
Should Teixeira fall into the cleanup spot now that Rodriguez is out?
The Yankees could bump Robinson Cano up a spot to fill the cleanup void, or they could move Brett Gardner into the leadoff spot, move Curtis Granderson into the No. 3 hole and give the switch-hitting Teixeira the No. 4 spot between lefties Granderson and Cano.
Nothing has happened this season to change the Yankees long-term plans at first base. Teixeira is still a middle-of-the-order hitter in his prime, and his power numbers have helped make up for Alex Rodriguez’s relative lack of power in the cleanup spot. First base still belong to Teixeira for the foreseeable future.
Associated Press photo
Kevin Whelan opened this season as a rather forgettable part of a potentially memorable Triple-A pitching staff. Legitimate prospects filled the rotation, and the bullpen was dotted with returned Rule 5 picks and veterans with big league experience.
Then there was Whelan, the last remaining piece of the 2006 Gary Sheffield trade. He was a fallen prospect, a guy who always walked too many batters and finally reached a new low with a 6.02 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last season.
Whelan’s been a completely different pitcher this year. As Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s closer, he’s cut down on the walks significantly. He has a 1.73 ERA, 17 saves, and he’s allowed just 17 hits and six walks through 26 innings. He’s struck out 28, and his 0.88 WHIP is the lowest on the team.
“It is the command, which translates to confidence,” pitching coordinator Nardi Contreras said in an email.
Contraras was the second person I talked to who mentioned confidence when explaining Whelan’s sudden improvement. He’s always had a good fastball and a big splitfinger — and he’s had some real success from time to time — but it seems that things are just now coming together. If the Yankees find an opening for a one-inning guy, Whelan would surely be the front-runner for the job. It’s worth noting that he’s been especially good against left-handers, holding them to a .178 batting average with 19 strikeouts and only two walks.
It’s also worth noting that Whelan’s not on the 40-man, and the Yankees have found more openings for multi-inning relievers than short relievers this season. Jonathan Albaladejo had even better numbers as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s closer last season — and he actually was on the 40-man — but Albaladejo barely got a look at the Major League level. So Whelan might not be looking for apartments in the city, but he’s surely put himself on the map. It’s impossible to ignore a guy who’s always had the potential and is just now finding the consistent results.
• Gary Sanchez is back on the Charleston active roster. He returned Saturday after being sent to extended spring training for what appears to be some combination of a bad back and a bad attitude, probably more of one than the other. He had a hit and drew a walk in his first game back.
• Greg Golson has been activated from the Triple-A disabled list, a move came one day after Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s most productive outfielder, Justin Maxwell, went on the disabled list with a jammed shoulder. Maxwell actually has a higher slugging percentage than Jorge Vazquez and homered in three games in a row just before the injury. For the season he’s hitting .260/.358/.588 and might have hit his way into a big league role had Andruw Jones not started hitting lately.
• Speaking of banged-up Triple-A players who might or might not be playing their way into a call-up: Carlos Silva was scratched from a start on Sunday because of tightness in his shoulder. Doesn’t seem too serious. Manager Dave Miley told Donnie Collins, “We’re just pushing him back.”
• If there’s no spot for Whelan as a short reliever in New York, the Yankees certainly have options for long relief out of Triple-A. George Kontos and Buddy Carlyle are still pitching well in long relief for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Kontos is holding right-handers to a .143 average with 24 strikeouts and four walks. Out of the rotation, tonight’s starter D.J. Mitchell has a 2.78 ERA and pitched seven scoreless in his most recent outing.
• After hitting .218/.292/.287 in April, Kevin Russo hit .316/.384/.408 in May. Brandon Laird made a similar turnaround, from .184/.213/.289 in April to .307/.343/.406 in May. Jesus Montero went the other way, from .365/.360/.473 to .269/.333/.413.
• Strange stuff in Double-A Trenton where hitting coach Julius Matos was ejected last week, then got into some sort of argument with manager Tony Franklin and has since been removed from his role. Popular roving hitting instructor James Rowson has taken over the job for now. It’s unclear whether Matos will return in any capacity.
• Austin Romine is the only Trenton regular hitting better than .277, and he’s missed a few games with a stiff neck and back after a home plate collision. Romine has certainly been the high point of the Double-A lineup. Melky Mesa is back to being an all-or-nothing hitter, Bradley Suttle is hitting for good power but a .233 average and Corban Joseph has been good but not great.
• I talked about him a little bit in today’s chat: Trenton reliever Tim Norton is starting to get some attention. Injuries have always been the biggest knock on the guy. This year he’s healthy and putting up incredible numbers (44 strikeouts in 29 innings, for example). One scout told Bill Madden that Norton is, “better than (Joba) Chamberlain right now.”
• Manny Banuelos has a 2.12 ERA and Dellin Betances has a 1.99, so those two are doing just fine despite higher-than-you’d-like walk totals. Craig Heyer, a guy the Yankees sent to the Fall League this offseason, has been awfully good since stepping into the rotation to fill in for some injuries.
• Tampa third baseman Rob Lyerly made the Florida State League all-star team, but as expected, the High-A roster is lowest of the four affiliates in terms of prospect buzz. Starters Brett Marshall and Jairo Heredia, though, are starting to do some things. In Heredia’s past three starts he’s allowed one earned run through 21 innings. He’s walked two and struck out 22. He’s another of those “if-things-go-right” prospects.
• J.R. Murphy remains the best all-around hitter in Low-A Charleston, but first baseman Kyle Roller leads the team with a .563 slugging percentage and corner outfielder Ramon Flores leads with a .407 on-base percentage.
• Slade Heathcott in April: .370/.453/.630. — Slade Heathcott in May: .216/.283/.289.
• The amateur draft begins tonight. The Yankees don’t have a pick until the supplemental first round — No. 51 overall — but they’ll almost certainly be part of the story with pick No. 1. The Pirates are reportedly planning to take Gerrit Cole, the former Yankees first-round pick who ultimately signed with UCLA rather than join the Yankees minor league system.
Headshots of Whelan, Sanchez, Golson, Romine and Norton
Yankees organizational depth: First base • 01.09.11
Up next in a position-by-position look at the Yankees organization we’ll turn to first base, where the Yankees lack of organizational depth shouldn’t be a significant concern because of the guy who’s already playing the position in New York.
In the big leagues
If you go from 2004 through 2009 and choose Mark Teixeira’s lowest single-season batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage you get this slash line: .281/.370/.514. That makes last year’s slash line of .256/.365/.481 a complete outlier. It was quite literally — in every way — unprecedented since Teixeira’s rookie year. No Yankees position player is better positioned for a rebound season than their soon-to-be 31-year-old first baseman. At his age, there’s little reason to expect a repeat of 2010, which is good for the Yankees because he’s locked up through the 2016 season.
On the verge
For the past three years, the first baseman waiting in the Triple-A shadows has been Juan Miranda. He always hit, but his path was always blocked and this winter he was traded to Arizona. Instead, the immediate minor league depth at first base centers on Jorge Vazquez and Brandon Laird. Vazquez is a veteran of the Mexican League, a raw power hitter who slugged .526 in Triple-A last season. Laird is a self-made prospect who’s spent most of his time at third base and is starting to see time in the outfield corners. Laird is more versatile than Vazquez — plus he has a 40-man spot with more prospect hype — but Vazquez isn’t out of the picture entirely. He’d have to impress to jump ahead of Laird for a call-up, but he’ll probably get most of the Triple-A starts at first base.
Deep in the system
Even in the lower levels, there isn’t a lot of pure first-base talent that jumps out as big-name prospects. Kyle Roller was the Yankees eight-round draft pick this summer, and he hit .272/.367/.402 while leading Staten Island in total bases last year. Luke Murton was a 19th-round pick in ’09 and slugged .463 in Charleston last season. A first-base wild card is Reymond Nunez, who’s shown good power in the extremely low levels of the system but hit just .222/.263/.361 and suffered a hamstring injury last year. He could be in the mix in Charleston, if not in April maybe some time during the season.
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: Mark Teixeira
Scranton/WB: Jorge Vazquez
Trenton: Myron Leslie, Brad Suttle
Tampa: Luke Murton
Charleston: Kyle Roller
The true New York first-base depth chart probably includes Nick Swisher and Brandon Laird as well, but as long as Teixeira stays healthy, those two will obviously get most of their playing time elsewhere.
Suttle is a good defensive third baseman, but I listed him in the mix at first only because the Triple-A and Double-A infields are pretty crowded, and first base could be a position used primarily to get people at-bats. If Suttle, David Adams and Corban Joseph all open in Trenton, there will be only so many second base and third base at-bats to go around. Leslie is a former independent leaguer who could fill the gap. Guys like Rob Lyerly, Addison Maruszak, and Ramon Flores could also get some time at first base in the full-season leagues, but they primarily play other positions.
Associated Press photo of Teixeira, headshots of Teixeira, Vazquez and Murton