The Yankees entered the 2017 campaign believing they would have much better performance from their first basemen after a dormant 2016 season. Instead, Yankees first basemen rank dead last in MLB in each component of the triple slash line (.176/.288/.301) and OPS+ (45, with 100 considered average).
The drain at the position in 2016 was disappointing, but the club was optimistic for 2017 with Tyler Austin set to build on last season's cameo, Greg Bird back and healthy, and 2016 National League home run co-leader Chris Carter signed for added power.
Austin was hurt before a competition at first base could begin, allowing Bird to win the job with a fantastic spring training, while Carter was relegated to the bench.
Bird's bat went on ice after heading north, as he went 6-for-60 with one home run and three RBI before landing on the disabled list with a bone bruise in his right ankle. The injury was sustained at the tail end of spring training, begging the question of whether it was impeding his production.
In the meantime, Carter has delivered all the strikeouts that were anticipated, but he's failed to establish the power. In 86 at-bats (98 plate appearances), Carter has all of three home runs and 11 RBI, but a mountain of strikeouts (37). It was suggested that Carter, who drilled 41 homers last season, just needed consistent reps to get going. Unfortunately, that has not been the case as Carter is hitting .208 with two homers, six RBI, a .687 OPS, and 24 strikeouts in 57 plate appearances since Bird went on the disabled list.
At the moment, there are plenty of Yankees providing run support, which has masked the terrible numbers from what is typically one of the better offensive positions for clubs. The rest of the Yankees bats have also allowed the team to be patient with whomever is manning first base. Eventually, the Yankees will have slowdowns from others in the lineup and it will be necessary for the club to receive a boost from the first baseman in the lineup.
There is something to look forward to as Austin and Bird are working their way back. Austin, 25, just began playing with Double-A Trenton, going 3-for-8 in his first three games. Bird, 24, took dry swings Monday at the Stadium and hopes to progress to soft tosses Tuesday and a potential rehab assignment as early as next week. If both Austin and Bird can convince the Yankees they are healthy, they could both be ready to help the big league club sometime in June.
As for Carter, it is what it is. I believed from the time he was signed that it was going to be a rough time for him because he was not used to receiving sporadic playing time. Yes, he can get into some pitches, but without 600 or more plate appearances the power numbers would simply not come to fruition. I still adhere to this notion and I suspect the Yankees have no intention of keeping him at first base if either Austin or Bird, let alone both, are healthy and productive.
If Austin and Bird are strong and generating enough offense by the time the trade deadline comes along it will be wise for the Yankees to get whatever they can for Carter. With a combination of Austin and Bird, the Yankees will continue to adhere to the youth movement and provide the necessary at-bats for players who figure into the future instead of a one-dimensional veteran.
Some might ask what happens if Austin and Bird get injured, or both struggle, without Carter on the roster? The way I see it, the Yanks could dip into the farm system and not receive less in performance. Rob Refsnyder can be used at first base if the team is desperate (and if he is still around) or they could turn to up-and-coming first bagger Mike Ford, who is tearing up the minors this season (.303/.415/.521 with 11 doubles, six home runs and 26 RBIs across 142 combined at-bats with Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre).
Regardless, losing Carter is not going to matter to the overall production of the club. I would take my chances that one or both of Austin and Bird can stay healthy and become productive hitters in the Yankees lineup. When healthy, each player has demonstrated the ability to produce at the major league level. And they deserve the chance to prove they belong long term.
Even if Austin and/or Bird struggle, the Yankees will be providing experience for the right players, not one with no tie to the future and little to provide for the present.