The Top-Flight First Baseman
On August 2, 2018, Luke Voit made his pinstriped debut. It was a relatively dull introduction to Yankees fans, as he went 0-for-4 in a 15-7 loss to the Red Sox. And, to be frank, it wasn’t all that shocking either; after all, Voit was a no-name 27-year-old first baseman that many assumed was the secondary piece in the deal that sent Gio Gallegos to the Cardinals for international bonus money.
As it turns out, that was the low point of Voit’s tenure.
Voit has hit .279/.372/.543 as a member of the Yankees, which is good for a 144 wRC+. That wRC+ ranks third among first basemen, behind 2019 MVP Cody Bellinger (who has played more outfield in this span) and 2020 MVP Freddie Freeman. That’s pretty good company, folks. And, if you want to go even deeper, his 144 wRC+ ranks 12th among all hitters.
In 2020, Voit batted .277/.338/.610 (152 wRC+) with an MLB-best 22 dingers. There’s room for improvement to be sure, as Bobby eloquently laid out earlier this week – but it’s really tough to ask for more. Nevertheless, the projection systems still aren’t quite sure what to make of Voit:
|PECOTA||614||36||.263/.346/.508 (129 DRC+)||3.0|
|ZiPS||509||31||.270/.356/.529 (132 wRC+)||2.6|
|Steamer||615||30||.251/.342/.469 (113 wRC+)||1.8|
The projections from PECOTA and ZiPS basically split the difference between Voit’s injury-riddled 2019 and his 2020. That seems reasonable to me, even though I can’t overlook the fact that he has a 144 wRC+ with the Yankees. I am kind of baffled by the Steamer line, though, which seems to be splitting the difference between his two-month stint with the Cardinals in 2017 and the aforementioned 2019. Voit just turned 30, too, so age-based decline shouldn’t be baked-in just yet. Consider me perplexed.
I would be happy with either of the first two lines, even if I was mildly disappointed. And having typed out ‘2019’ twice serves as a reminder that avoiding nagging injuries may well be the key to Voit’s success.
Acquired for Cash – Thanks, Blue Jays
Two days after Voit made his Yankees debut, Brian Cashman sent some cash to the Blue Jays for Gio Urshela. The third baseman would spend the rest of that season at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and he did quite well, slashing .307/.340/.475. That wasn’t the first time Urshela had raked at Triple-A, but the team clearly had interest in his bat as he worked with instructor Phil Plantier regularly down the stretch.
On April 6, 2019 pinch-hit for Tyler Wade and took over at third base in the 6th inning. He went 0-for-2 and, like Voit, it didn’t really seem all that important. And, like Voit, he became a fixture in the lineup immediately and did nothing but rake afterwards: in 650 PA with the Yankees, Urshela has slashed .310/.358/.523 (132 wRC+) with 27 home runs.
Thirty third basemen have come to the plate at least 650 times since the beginning of 2019. Among those, Urshela ranks 5th in wRC+ and 14th in WAR. As Jaime recently pointed out, though, WAR is a counting stat – and on a per-PA basis, Urshela ranks 9th in WAR. That’s not too bad for a player that was picked up for some cold hard cash.
What’s next for Urshela? Let’s turn to the projections:
|PECOTA||559||18||.268/.320/.431 (103 DRC+)||1.4|
|ZiPS||508||18||.283/.331/.459 (106 wRC+)||2.5|
|Steamer||579||18||.269/.324/.428 (98 wRC+)||1.9|
Those numbers are basically Urshela’s career norms. He’s a career .273/.322/.432 (100 wRC+) hitter, and he averaged 18.3 HR per 600 PA. Projection systems don’t really have a way of accounting for swing changes, so this isn’t too surprising. After all, Urshela’s career is basically only two full-ish seasons: one with the Yankees, and one beforehand. And he had a 57 wRC+ before coming to the Bronx.
I’d bet the over, though. Especially since his elbow injury seems to be firmly in the rearview mirror.
One note: the projection systems still foresee above-average defense from Urshela at the hot corner. UZR notoriously disliked him in 2019, but that seems to be a thing of the past.
The Emergency Back-Up at Both Corners
I’ll let a picture do the talking for me here, for two reasons:
- If LeMahieu is pressed into extended duty at first or third, it’s quite likely that something went horribly wrong.
- Everything you need to know about LeMahieu will be written in another preview.
The Three-Headed Back-Up Competition
Mike Ford is the incumbent behind Voit, and he’s on the 40-man roster. He has that going for him. Mike Ford hit .135/.226/.270 (36 wRC+) in 84 PA last year. His career is essentially a red-hot two months in 2019, and a whimpering 2020. I imagine that has to be working against him.
Enter Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich.
Bruce, who signed a minor league deal with the Yankees earlier this month, is entering his age-34 season. He seems to be entrenched in a decline, batting .217/.282/.448 (92 wRC+) since the beginning of 2018, and battling nagging injuries. And it doesn’t look much better in a platoon role, either, as he sports a 95 wRC+ against righties in this span. Though, it was a 109 in 85 PA in 2020. So, there’s that.
Dietrich, whom I’ve been fascinated with for a few years now, looks much better at a three-year glance. He’s hitting .236/.331/.435 (108 wRC+) over that time, with a 111 wRC+ against RHP. And there’s this:
Let’s see what PECOTA has to say about these gentlemen:
|Ford||132||6||.241/.339/.462 (111 DRC+)||0.3|
|Bruce||600||28||.224/.296/.439 (96 DRC+)||1.2|
|Dietrich||300||12||.239/.348/.449 (116 DRC+)||1.2|
I don’t know what to make of the fact that Ford and Dietrich look quite so good – but it’s interesting that PECOTA projects both to bounce back, while foreseeing more of the same from Bruce.
As an added wrinkle, Ford is strictly a first baseman. Bruce is capable of playing left and right (to a draw), and Dietrich can play second (passably), third (maybe passably), and left (though, he shouldn’t). Ford also has two options left.
If the team is looking for present and future flexibility, I think Dietrich makes the most sense, with Ford playing regularly in the minors. A 40-man move would have to be made – but that’s always an expectation as the season approaches, isn’t it?
Whither the Hot Corner?
There are two 40-man roster options here, in Miguel Andújar and Thairo Estrada. If you add up their 2020 wRC+ figures – which is nonsense, but bear with me – you get an almost league-average 99. I bring that up because, however you slice it, neither guy is thrilling. But let’s go a bit deeper anyway.
Andújar was great in 2018. That was a long time ago, it seems, and he has been injured, bad, and frustrating since then. Even so, he’ll spend all of 2021 at 26, he has a minor league option remaining, and he posted a 129 wRC+ in 2018. There are reasons to keep him around and reasons to hope for more.
There’s really no way to spin the last two years, though. Andújar’s exit velocities, barrel percentages, and sweet spot percentages were bad, he still doesn’t walk, and the defensive metrics universally dislike him at third base (and in left field, albeit in just 42 innings).
Okay, so maybe I’ve talked my way out of Andújar. The best-case scenario for him, assuming you cling onto visions of his 2018 bat reawakening, is playing every day and figuring out something in the field. Perhaps the aforementioned first base?
Estrada isn’t all that much more enticing, though he has the feel of a perfectly adequate bench player. By reputation, he’s a solid defender at second, third, and short, and a competent hitter with average-ish tools across the board. That’s basically a utility infielder starter kit, and it makes more sense to trot him out there on a non-regular basis than someone who might have more to offer.
There isn’t much here, so let’s do this with bullet points:
- Chris Gittens mashed at Double-A in 2019, putting up a 164 wRC+ in a full season at the level. He has plus-plus to elite raw power, and takes lots of walks. He’s also 27-years-old and can only play first base.
- Marcos Cabrera looked great in the DSL in 2019, hitting .269/.380/.445 (130 wRC+). He’s earned praise for his approach, raw power, and cannon arm at third – but he’s only 19 and hasn’t played stateside yet. He’s basically a lottery ticket.
- Dermis Garcia has been around forever. He’s still crushing the ball, posting a .244 ISO and 17 HR in High-A in 2019, but he strikes out a ton and was moved from third to first in 2019. He’s still only 23, though, and the power potential is elite.
- Mickey Gasper was a 27th round pick in 2018, and split his time between first and catcher in 2019. He’s a switch-hitter with some pop, and it seems likely that he’s going to be a first baseman going forward. The fact that he might – might – be able to catch is what pushes him into this section instead of the following one.
This isn’t an organizational strength – hence, thoughts and prayers.
These are the guys that don’t really fit anywhere else, but merit a brief mention. Let’s do bullet points again, shall we?
- The 22-year-old Jose Martinez has split his time between first and third, but seems destined for first because of middling athleticism. He’s probably an org guy. He had a brief taste of High-A in 2019.
- Spencer Henson is kind of like a diet version of Chris Gittens. Derek wrote a bit about him back in 2019.
- Kyle MacDonald is another somewhat generic first base prospect. He’s a lefty, though.
- Mandy Alvarez is a solid defensive third baseman that has a similar offensive profile to Thairo Estrada. That’s not great – but he has a good deal of experience at Double-A and Triple-A and is probably the team’s most MLB-ready third base prospect.
- Andrew Velazquez signed a minor league deal with the Yankees in December. He spent most of last season on the Orioles roster, where he put up a 41 wRC+ and logged time at second, short, left, and center. He’s put in work at third in the minors and with the Rays in 2018 and 2019, though, so he might be a challenger to Estrada (or Tyler Wade).
- MLB: Voit*, Urshela*, Dietrich^, Estrada*
- Triple-A: Ford*, Andujar*, Bruce^, Velazquez^, Alvarez
- Double-A: Gittens*, Garcia,
- High-A: Henson, Gasper
- Low-A: Cabrera, Martinez
*Denotes on 40-man roster, ^ denotes non-roster invitee to major league spring training.