With little-to-no production coming from first base, the New York Yankees are going to have to take a risk and try something new.
Aside from the starting rotation, there is very little going wrong for the New York Yankees as of May 22, 2017.
They are in first place in the American League East, own the third-best record in Major League Baseball, have scored the most runs in the AL (232) along with the greatest run differential (+55).
Yet, New York has yet to receive considerable contributions from the first base position. According to FanGraphs, Yankee first basemen are slashing .161/.275/.273 with a wRC+ of 54. The rank dead last in the majors in home runs (3), WAR (-0.6), OPS (.548) and rank third-to-last in win probability (-1.22).
It has a lot to do with Greg Bird‘ ineffectiveness and ankle injury, Tyler Austin‘s broken foot sustained before the start of spring training and Chris Carter‘s 38.9 strikeout rate. The latter was 2016’s National League home run leader and was brought in to be an insurance policy. What Carter has been, however, is a borderline offensive liability.
Through 29 games played, the 30-year-old is slashing .205/.295/.325 with the third-lowest slugging percentage among first baseman with at least 80 plate appearances. He’s hitting one home run for every 18.5 strikeouts compared to a home run every five strikeouts he hit in 2016. Since taking over for Bird on May 2, Carter is 9-for-45 (.200) with 24 strikeouts in 13 starts (53.3 strikeout percentage).
So, where do the Yankees go from here? Austin is rehabbing his foot injury but the stint is expected to be lengthy, given that he missed the entire spring training in Tampa. There’s nowhere to turn in free agency and since Ji-Man Choi (.968 OPS in Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) is on the DL as well, no immediate fixes seem to be in the farm system.
There could be one on the bench, though, as fourth outfielder Aaron Hicks has been taking ground balls at first base. Manager Joe Girardi has been trying to find the switch-hitter everyday at-bats, but with how well Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Aaron Judge have performed at the dish, it has been a troubling task. On the other hand, it’s almost felonious to keep Hicks’ bat on the shelf for 4-5 days a week.
Among major league hitters with at least 110 plate appearances this season, Hicks ranks inside the Top-10 in wRC+ (177), on-base percentage (.441), walk rate (19.3 percent) and his .570 slugging percentage is second-best among Yankees hitters — second to only Aaron Judge.
Third base coach Joe Espada confirms that the work at first base is only for emergencies, but we’ve seen Austin Romine and Rob Refsnyder learn the position during a crash-course. Hicks has played all three outfield positions and possesses superb athleticism — beyond Romine and Refsnyder. If anyone can adjust to the position on the fly, it could be Hicks.
“If he learned it, yes, I think so,” Espada told NJ.com. “During the season, it’s really hard to get him to learn it. But he’ll take some groundballs on his off days and see what he can do. He does have some athleticism but it takes time to learn.”
For offensive purposes, getting his bat in there would help fix a problem that has existed since the start of the 2016 season: first base production. When Austin and Bird get back to action, clarity will be brought but until then, one can’t deny the value New York can obtain with Hicks in the lineup on a consistent basis as opposed to Carter’s -0.2 WAR and career -19 defensive runs saved at first.
Will it happen? Not unless it’s the bottom of the 15th inning and the Yankees need a last-minute option, but an option out of left field could be just what Girardi needs as his team looks to bounce back from a 3-7 record over the last 10 days.