Not everything has been peachy for the Yankees this season. Though the club is on top of the AL East and boasts baseball's best offense, first base has been a black hole. Somehow, having the league's third-worst hitting first basemen hasn't stopped the Yankees from obliterating opposing pitching. Greg Bird, whose early season struggles before hitting the disabled list are well documented, was supposed to be healthy and returning soon. We were all eager to see Bird return and hopefully help dig out of the hole he and Chris Carter created at first base. Now, with Bird's rehab curtailed and Carter not making things better, where do the Yankees go from here?
The status quo
To the front office's credit, it's not like the team was unprepared for a possible setback for Bird. Carter was signed as insurance in the event that Bird required more time to rehabilitate his shoulder. Of course, the injury that management had a backup plan for wasn't the injury that occurred. Once Bird hit the disabled list, Carter got his shot. Unfortunately, the Carter we've seen has been nothing like last year's version of the slugger, who hit 41 home runs and posted a 112 wRC+ in 2016. Instead, Carter has struggled. Entering last night's game, he sported a .207/.298/.371 batting line with 6 homers in 161 plate appearances (79 wRC+).
Carter has been frustrating to watch. His swing isn't aesthetically pleasing, which contributes to a lot of grumbling. Dropping an easy throw at first base the other night doesn't help, either. Yet, there are a few reasons the Yankees are still rostering him:
- His prodigious power has to show up at some point, right?
- The projection systems are still in his favor. ZiPS (112 wRC+) and Steamer (106 wRC+) still estimate Carter to be a good hitter the rest of the season.
- He's not bringing down the rest of the offense with him.
- Not sure where he'd play, but the Red Sox would snatch him up and let him hit a million dingers over the monster, right?
- Experience. None of the other internal alternatives I'm about to mention have much of a track record, if any, in the majors. That's a leg up for Carter. I know we tend to cringe about the veteran presence cliche, but it's clearly worth something to the organization.
Carter's not going to please many fans, at least not immediately, but I wouldn't recommend anyone getting their hopes up for a change right away. Talk to me again in July if Bird's return still isn't imminent (though I suppose July isn't too far off).
Next in line
As Tyler Austin has progressed on his own rehab assignment, there's been plenty of clamor to have him replace Carter as soon as he's ready. The problem is that Austin isn't a certain boost over Carter. Though Austin did fine in his debut last year, posting a 102 wRC+ in 90 trips to the plate, he did strike out aplenty (40%). Carter was better last year, and Carter's projections are more favorable going forward. ZiPS and Steamer forecasted a 91 and 93 wRC+ for Austin entering 2017, respectively.
An argument for Austin that says he can't be any worse than Carter has been is a poor one. Look, Carter has been bad, but it's not out of the realm that Austin would be worse. After all, his mean projections aren't way better than Carter's current performance, not to mention Carter's forecast is, as I already said, better. Sometimes, a change for the sake of making a change isn't always a good idea. As long as the rest of the offense is clicking, there's no need to hurry Austin.
I guess I also have to mention Rob Refsnyder too. After all, he is currently on the 25-man roster and sporadically getting chances at first base. The problem is that Refsnyder certainly isn't better offensively than Carter, and is a pretty bad fielder to boot.
Outside the box
EJ has clamored for Mike Ford to get a chance (here and here), and I can't say I blame him. Perhaps the organization's most unheralded prospect, Ford has done nothing but rake at all levels of the minors. He's already mashed Double-A pitching (144 wRC+ last year and 147 wRC+ this year) and should be in Triple-A, but is blocked. When Ji-Man Choi was injured, Ford spent some time in Scranton (and of course hit). His 44 plate appearance stint at Triple-A wasn't the reason he was sent back to Double-A once Choi returned, as Ford boasted a 221 wRC+ during his time in Scranton. Rather, it was because of a roster crunch.
I'll gush a little bit more about Ford: he walks more than he strikes out, he's got power, and he's a left-handed hitter. He's also one of KATOH's sleeper prospects. I get that it's odd to rave about a soon-to-be 25 year-old first baseman who isn't a physical specimen (he's listed at 6-feet 225 lbs) and limited to first base, but what more does Ford need to do to earn a shot?
Aside from Ford, the aforementioned Choi could emerge as an option. Though he doesn't offer much power, Choi has handled Triple-A pitching in three different organizations, including the Yankees. He's got some major league experience on his side, all with the Angels last year, though it wasn't pretty. Choi could also play some outfield in a pinch.
With essentially the rest of the offense firing on all cylinders in mid-June, the front office can bide its time on the trade front. The non-waiver trade deadline is a month and a half away and I wouldn't anticipate any swaps until it comes closer. Expect the Yankees to continue waiting for Carter to come around and then try internal candidates before seeking an external option. All that doesn't even account for the possibility of Bird's setback being on the short side. If all does go wrong, there should be a handful of first basemen on the block this trade deadline season. Three to keep in mind: Yonder Alonso, Eric Hosmer, and Matt Adams.
Alonso is an impending free agent and having a breakout season in Oakland. The A's are no strangers to selling at the deadline, and Alonso is shaping up to be an attractive piece next month.
Like Alonso, Hosmer is also going to be a free agent after the season. If the Royals don't expect to re-sign him, they'll almost certainly deal him. Hosmer's been a player whose name value has exceeded his on-field value, but he is having a bit of a rebound season in 2017.
Adams, who was dealt to Atlanta earlier in the season when the Braves lost Freddie Freeman to injury, isn't a free agent until after next season. Adams is more of a stopgap in Atlanta, though he's hit well as a Brave. He's certainly not going to take away time from Freeman when both are healthy, and with only one additional year of control, the Braves will be listening to offers.
Again, I'd be surprised if Carter doesn't continue to get reps at first base. The rest of the offense has picked up his slack and there's no guarantee that any prospects are a better fit. There also needs to be more clarity on Bird's prognosis before any significant changes. The status quo isn't going to excite many, if anyone, but it's not as bad of a route as it may seem.