The New York Yankees have one of the best minor league systems in all of baseball. The number of top prospects in the organization rivals all other teams. Beyond that, the depth of talent on the farm in the most impressive collection of young players that the Yankees have had in my lifetime. As we prepare for the start of spring training, let’s look at this depth, position by position. We will examine the organization from top to bottom.
“The Hitman.” “Donnie Baseball.” To a generation of Yankees fans growing up in the 1980s, Donald Arthur Mattingly epitomized what it meant to be a Yankee. In the almost three and a half decades since he made his debut, the Yankees have always fielded a team that featured an elite first baseman. Whether homegrown like Mattingly, via trade like his successor, Tino Martinez, or through free agency, like Jason Giambi and Mark Teixeira, one thing was always certain: The Yankees first baseman was going to be a star slugger, taking aim at the short right field porch at Yankees Stadium.
In 2017, there is far less certainty in the position. Greg Bird is expected to win the job in spring training. He was promoted in 2015 when Teixeira was injured. As a 22-year-old that year, he had the poise of an established veteran, hitting home runs at a pace Gary Sanchez would be proud about. All this during a pennant race. However, he missed the entire 2016 season with a torn labrum. While he did return to play in the Arizona Fall League to prove himself healthy, he did lose a year of development. At this point he is an unproven commodity, having only played in 47 major league games, including the playoffs.
Tyler Austin was once a top 100 prospect (2013 Baseball America #77, MLB #75). However, by 2015, he was waived off the Yankees’ 40-man roster, his career having stalled out. He returned in 2016, a man on a mission. Tearing through both the Eastern and International leagues, he earned a promotion to the Yankees and excelled when the stakes were the highest. Now, he will enter spring training providing competition to Bird as well as Aaron Judge in right field. His versatility will give plenty of options for Manager Joe Girardi to get his bat into the lineup.
Mike Ford mainly split last year between Tampa and Trenton. His slash line was an impressive .289/.416.479. He is expected to be promoted to Scranton this year. Considering that the Yankees used nine players at first in 2016, there is a chance he sees time in the Bronx before the year is through.
The Trenton Thunder currently lists Dan Fiorito and Dante Bichette Jr. as its first basemen. Fiorito bounced between Scranton and Trenton last year, as needed, before injuring his left elbow and missing over two months of action. Bichette is returning to the Thunder where he spent last year, splitting time at third and first. The Yankees will be looking for their 2011 first round pick to take a big step forward with his development this year.
Connor Spencer spent time in 2016 with Charleston and Tampa. He is projected to return to Tampa for the upcoming season. His batting average (.289) and on-base percentage (.390) were impressive. If he can develop some power, perhaps he will be in line for a promotion this year.
Chris Gittens slugged 21 home runs as the first baseman for the Charleston River Dogs last year. He is the team’s only legitimate power hitting first baseman in the lower levels.
Kane Sweeney, Brandon Wagner, and Tim Lynch will continue to develop in the short season and rookie leagues. They will likely begin the year at extended spring training before being sent to Staten Island, Pulaski, or the Gulf Coast League teams.
Three players to keep an eye on are Ryan Krill, Miguel Flames, and David Vergel. In a very small sample size, Krill slashed .379/.471/.621 for an OPS of 1.092. Granted it was only in 70 at bats, against much younger competition, but that production warrants attention. Vergel had an OPS of .849 spending time at catcher and first as a 19-year-old in the Dominican Summer League. Flames was an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, also splitting time at catcher and first.
The Yankees are going to count on Greg Bird to produce in the middle of the order. They are hoping that he continues the string of premier sluggers that the team has had, taking aim at the bleachers behind right field. He is in the position to be the first baseman for years to come and joining a new collection of young stars destined to be called the new “core 4”.