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What is the Yankees plan for first base and DH next season?

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Two of the most confusing pieces of the roster puzzle are first base and designated hitter, where a bevy of candidates wait.  

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

When discussing the prospects of next year’s Yankees, most analysts neglect to mention whether they’re going to be good, bad, competitive, in the AL East cellar, or simply a .500 team. Instead, the widely used word to describe the club is “fun.” Nobody really knows how the roster and depth chart will look and play, which, for those of us who welcome some more entropy in our lives, means “fun.”

All around the diamond, the Yankees have question marks. From the rotation to the lineup to the bullpen to the outfield, there are a lot of positions that are up for grabs, often with a number of worthy suitors. One of the biggest question marks for New York going into 2017 is the same two positions that were so murky as they entered this season: designated hitter and first base.

Designated hitter has been chaotic this season, to say the least. Starting with now-retired veteran Alex Rodriguez, who contributed 65 games of 56 wRC+, and ending with a combination of budding star Gary Sanchez and the one-dimensional Brian McCann, it’s anybody’s guess as to what will happen next season. To make the situation more confounding, someone named ‘Billy Butler’ has also been penciled into the lineup at DH, along with rookie Tyler Austin.

Next season, the most obvious set-up looks to be a combination of Brian McCann and Gary Sanchez, both splitting time between designated hitter and catcher. The advantages of this strategy are clear: the two players can both avoid bearing the brunt of catching for a full season and see regular at bats. This should have two positions pinned down in catcher and designated hitter, though nothing is ever that easy.

The Yankees have, rightly so, placed Brian McCann’s name on the trade block. The veteran isn’t needed behind the plate anymore with Gary Sanchez dominating the league, and McCann’s hefty contract and age seem out of place with the new-look Baby Bombers. A trade this offseason isn’t exactly likely, but it certainly wouldn’t be unexpected.

If this is the case, everything gets weird. Someone from the pool of candidates among first baseman would likely slide over to the designated hitter spot. Among the possibilities are Tyler Austin, Billy Butler, and/or Greg Bird. Before talking about the designated hitter starter in the case of a McCann trade, though, we should probably look at the first base situation (see, I told you things get confusing).

The current expectation for first base is a combination of Greg Bird and Tyler Austin. Bird, recovering from a torn labrum that cost him 2016, had a 137 wRC+ in his rookie campaign the year before. He has the bat to start every day at first base, but shoulder injuries can sap power in the short term. Bird will play in the Arizona Fall League, and how he looks there will play a significant role in the Yankees’ plans for him next season.

Austin, on the other hand, is finally healthy, but hasn’t been able to carry over his productivity from Triple-A to the majors. A .230/.278/.432 line in 79 plate appearances from someone who was a non-prospect about four months ago is remarkable, but the same line is much less desirable if it belongs to your starting first baseman.

The Yankees would be wise to capitalize on platoon splits, giving Austin, who had a .365/.459/.698 line against lefties in Triple-A this season, exclusive at-bats against southpaws. Bird, who had a .270/.341/574 line against righties last season, would be on the strong side of the platoon. This would form a strong combination to man first base, especially since it would give Bird plenty of rest after a full season off.

But, of course, we have to return to the Brian McCann trade scenario. In this case, our friend Billy Butler comes back into the picture. Although Butler has been worth negative fWAR for three straight seasons and has just five home runs over 270 plate appearances in 2016, he’s a good bet for league average offense and is neutral to a platoon. Having him, Bird, and Austin all split time between first base and designated hitter (while keeping platoon splits in mind for the latter two) is a messy option, but probably the best the Yankees have if McCann is traded.

We should probably talk about free agents, though. And let’s hope the Yankees aren’t short-sighted enough to sign Edwin Encarnacion, a 34-year-old with a spotty injury history, to a large contract, or someone else like Mark Trumbo, who was, as recently as this offseason, traded for a racist third string catcher and is physically unable to do anything but hit home runs and strike out.

Given no significant roster changes, next year fans can probably expect a McCann/Sanchez split between catcher and DH, and a Bird/Austin split between first base. If McCann is traded, though, Billy Butler may wiggle his way into the equation. Without the trade, the Yankees aren’t looking so bad at the three positions, which is surprising considering a complete lack of production from DH and first base this season. With the trade, well, Billy Butler in pinstripes for a full season isn’t the end of the world…I think.