Ji-man Choi is the Yankees' latest attempt to solve their enormous hole at first base
- Ji-man Choi introduced himself nicely by homering in his first game as a Yankee, but he probably isn't a long-term solution for New York's glaring problem at first base.
Yankees fans can be forgiven if they weren't familiar with the man starting at first base on Wednesday afternoon against the Blue Jays—the seventh different player to be penciled into the lineup at that position already this season. Ji-man Choi isn't a household name (except perhaps in his native South Korea), but he does represent the latest effort by the Bronx Bombers to plug a hole that has grown steadily larger as the year has gone on, as first base has been, charitably speaking, a complete disaster for the team in 2017.
The numbers are stark. Yankees first basemen have combined for a miserable .200/.292/.377 line in 343 plate appearances—the lowest batting average and second-lowest OPS (.668) at that position in the majors. New York's 13 home runs there are 24th in baseball, and those players' combined 109 strikeouts are fifth-most in the league. By Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Average by position, the Yankees' -2.2 at first is better only than the Angels, who are dead last at -2.6.
How did the Yankees get here? One by one, all their options at the position have been taken down by injury or poor performance, leaving them scrambling for the likes of Choi to fill the spot. We start with Greg Bird, the one-time top prospect who, thanks to Mark Teixeira's retirement at the end of last season, entered 2017 as the top man on the first base depth chart despite missing all of '16 with a shoulder injury. That issue looked to be fully behind him during spring training, when he hit .444 in 45 at-bats and cranked eight home runs, but a foul ball off his right ankle toward the end of the Grapefruit League season proved to be his undoing. Battling the injury, Bird hit .100/.250/.200 with only one home run over the first month of the year before going on the disabled list in early May, where he's remained ever since. The latest bit of news has been all bad: Bird's ankle remains in pain, and both he and the team are throwing around unpleasant terms like "exploratory surgery" with regards to the injury. It's safe to say there's no timetable for his return.
With Bird down, the Yankees turned to veteran Chris Carter as the backup plan, which isn't a bad one as far as those go. After all, Carter did lead the National League in home runs last season with 41, and he averaged 33 a season from 2013 through last season as a member of the Astros and Brewers. But Carter did also hit a meager .201 last year, hasn't gotten his average above .230 in five years and is one of the most strikeout-prone hitters in the game; he's as one-dimensional a slugger as they come, which is why Milwaukee didn't tender him a contract him despite those 41 dingers. Carter has given the Yankees far more of the non-existent average than the power: Across 208 plate appearances, he's hit a putrid .201/.284/.370 and homered just eight times. It's a performance so bad at the plate (and in the field, as well) that the Yankees have designated Carter for assignment not once, but twice this season.
On to Door No. 3, behind which stood Tyler Austin, yet another product of the Yankees' fecund farm system. Austin was quietly and mildly productive last season for New York; lost amid the Gary Sanchez Show, he hit five homers in 31 games at the tender age of 24 after clobbering 17 across two levels of the minors that year. Robbed of a chance to make the big league squad this spring by a fractured left ankle, Austin rehabbed and worked his way to the majors, taking the place of Carter in late June. But Austin managed just 15 plate appearances across four games before a severe hamstring strain landed him back on the disabled list (and maybe out for the season).
That brings us to Choi, who was brought up from Triple A after Carter's second stint as a starter went just as poorly as the first. In the span of four months, the Yankees are already onto (at best) the fourth man on their depth chart, and one who was available essentially for free this winter after the 26-year-old put up a lousy .170/.271/.339 line in 129 plate appearances for the Angels last season—and that's a team so bereft of options at first base that it's currently playing Luis Valbuena there. Choi has hit in the minors, but he toiled down there for six years with the Mariners, was plucked by the Angels in the Rule 5 draft in 2015 and subsequently allowed to walk as a free agent. He's the definition of replacement level, and yet he'll be drawing starts at first base for the Yankees for the foreseeable future.
Alongside those four, the Yankees have tried virtually anyone with a glove and a pulse. Matt Holliday, who had started just 16 games at first base over his career before this year, has drawn seven starts at first, though the 37-year-old is better suited as an emergency option and not a regular starter (and is on the DL at the moment due to a viral infection). Rob Refsnyder, in his quest to play every position on the diamond poorly, has made four starts at first this year, though he hasn't hit nearly well enough (.135/.200/.216) to justify his iron glove there. Even backup catcher Austin Romine has taken three turns at first, though he was a last resort during the period when Austin was hurt and Carter was originally DFA'd.
The big problem for the Yankees is that, barring an unexpected recovery from Bird, Choi is the last realistic option. New York currently has undrafted four-year college player Mike Ford hitting well at Triple A in place of Choi, but the 25-year-old Princeton product (and former Ivy League Player of the Year) is likely a stretch to do any better than anyone else the Yankees have tried at the position. As such, any upgrade at first will have to come from outside the organization, forcing the team to dip into its prospect stash to fix the problem.
Luckily for the Yankees, there are good first base options on the trade market. Both Bay Area teams offer a top-flight first baseman: The Athletics have Yonder Alonso amid a career year and are likely looking to continue accumulating assets as their seemingly endless rebuild adds another year, and the last-place Giants could try to unload Brandon Belt's contract ($68 million over the next four years). Or the Yankees could reach out to their crosstown rivals, the Mets, to see what it would take to pry loose Lucas Duda, who will be a free agent after the season.
Either way, the Yankees have to do something. Choi did make a good first impression, bashing a 457-foot home run and driving in two in his first game in pinstripes, but he's not a good bet to produce regularly. Amid a rough stretch (6–16 in the last 22 games), New York has other issues aside from first base—problems at the back of the bullpen, a number of injuries, a shaky rotation—but most of those can be fixed with time and patience. First base can't.