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
The Yankees 1-2 punch in Triple-A • 04.18.11
Nine games into the Triple-A season, Vazquez is still hitting, and Montero has finally started.
This afternoon, Vazquez was named the International League Player of the Week. All he did was hit .423 with five home runs and 11 RBI through six games. For the season he’s hitting .325/.333/.775 with a team-high 15 RBI (more than twice as many as any one of his teammates). Vazquez is always going to strike out a bunch, and he’s not going to walk much, but that’s a big bat to have in reserve behind Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Eric Chavez.
Montero has played in eight games this season, and he has three hits in half of them. He has one home run and three doubles, and my line earlier about him finally hitting was kind of a lie. Reports were positive about Montero from the moment he was assigned to minor league camp. He showed this spring that there might still be room to grow, but he’s shown this season that his bat is still one of the elite tools in minor league baseball.
Some other off day notes from the minor leagues:
• The early standout from the deep Triple-A outfield has been Jordan Parraz, the guy who was claimed this winter and designated for assignment just before spring training. Parraz has two homers, two triples and a .395 average. Ramiro Pena and Justin Maxwell are also off to strong starts in Triple-A. Off to surprisingly slow starts: Brandon Laird, Kevin Russo and Chris Dickerson.
• Kevin Millwood was mostly 86-87 mph in his Double-A start on Sunday. Freddy Garcia showed on Saturday that a veteran pitcher can have success at that velocity, but it’s still hard to see a place for Millwood in New York. He’s going to have to prove he’s not only worth a call-up, but worth taking someone off the 40-man roster. For what it’s worth, Millwood’s line on Sunday was impressive: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 4 BB and 3 K.
• Ten games into the Eastern League season, Trenton has two home runs as a team, one by Cody Johnson and one by Melky Mesa. Only Johnson and Ray Kruml are hitting better than .265.
• Stats from a name you might not know: Tampa starter Josh Romanski is 2-0 with a 0.82 ERA through two stats. He’s allowed five hits and two walks through 11 innings. The only run he’s allowed came on a homer.
• Speaking of Tampa, the High-A corner infielders are off to strong starts. Third baseman Rob Lyerly is hitting .364 with two doubles, two triples, two homers and 14 RBI. First baseman Luke Murton is hitting .341 with two homers, a triple and four doubles.
• Ten games into the Low-A season, former first-round pick Slade Heathcott is hitting .364/.396/.705, though he has struck out 15 times. Another name to keep in mind on that Charleston roster is corner outfielder/first baseman Ramon Flores. He popped onto the radar with an impressive turn in the Gulf Coast League last year, and now he’s hitting .353/.522/.471 in Low-A. He’s played in 10 games and drawn 10 walks with seven strikeouts.
I didn’t intentionally time it this way, but Ed’s guest post about the construction of the Yankees minor league system happened to come on the same day MLB Network and MLB.com are revealing their Top 50 Prospects. The list will be announced at 9 p.m., broadcast on the television network and on the website. You can bet that Jesus Montero will be near the top.
Leading up to the Top 50, MLB.com has already ranked the top 10 prospects at each position.
Yankees on the list: Jesus Montero (1), Gary Sanchez (3), Austin Romine (8)
Yankees top prospect: Montero
The top catcher on last year’s MLB.com list was National League Rookie of the Year Buster Posey, who opened 2010 in the minor leagues before hitting his way to San Francisco. There’s obviously a chance Montero could do the same thing for New York this season.
Yankees on the list: None
Yankees top prospect: Luke Murton
The Yankees really don’t have a standout first base prospect, which isn’t a significant issue with Mark Teixeira in New York. The Yankees best long-term first base prospect is probably someone currently playing a different position, maybe third baseman Brandon Laird or catcher J.R. Murphy. Of the guys primarily playing first right now, I’ll give the nod to Murton, but you could just as easily make a case for Jorge Vazquez (more advanced), Kyle Roller (higher draft pick) or Reymond Nunez (more raw talent).
Yankees on the list: Eduardo Nunez (9)
Yankees top prospect: Corban Joseph
MLB.com put Nunez, a natural shortstop, on its list of second basemen and cited the probability that he’ll be cast in a utility role with the Yankees. Makes perfect sense, and I agree. Of the guys currently playing second base for the Yankees, I’ll go with Joseph as the top prospect, barely ahead of likely Trenton teammate David Adams. Both are interesting young players, but Nunez is more advanced.
Yankees on the list: None
Yankees top prospect: Eduardo Nunez
Nunez made MLB.com’s list at second base but not at shortstop. What stands out about the shortstop ranking is how many of the Top 10 are low-level players who are still extremely raw and young. It’s tough to stick at shortstop, which is part of the reason Nunez has real value (he’s made it this far). The Yankees have their own young, raw shortstop in first-round pick Cito Culver.
Yankees on the list: None
Yankees top prospect: Brandon Laird
Frankly, I think Laird has a chance to make the same sort of impact as some of the guys on MLB.com’s list. I might not have said that two years ago, but Laird has steadily produced, and now he’s one level away from the big leagues. Might not be a superstar, but he’s a good bet to help at the Major League level.
Yankees on the list: None
Yankees top prospect: Slade Heathcott
MLB.com’s list of outfielders starts with Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Domonic Brown. The Yankees don’t have anyone with that kind of hype or perceived potential, but Heathcott is a good young athlete, and the Yankees have quite a few interesting center fielders in their lower levels. On the whole, though, the outfield is a bit of an organizational weakness.
Yankees on the list: None
Yankees top prospect: Dellin Betances
Predictably, there are a lot of talented right-handers in minor league baseball, and listing the top 10 would be a matter of extreme preference. Betances is a legitimate prospect who belongs in the same sentence as some of the guys listed by MLB.com. He could pitch his way into the middle of the rotation, if not higher, and he could do it within the next year or two.
Yankees on the list: Manny Banuelos (10)
Yankees top prospect: Banuelos
This is a pretty impressive list of lefties, and MLB.com notes that Banuelos showed improved velocity in 2010, leading to projection as a “front-line starter in the not-too-distant future.” I consider him the top pitching prospect in the system, though Baseball American ranked him one spot behind Betances.
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