Early last week, Brian Cashman was on the YES Network’s Yankees Hot Stove show with Jack Curry. On the show, Cashman told Curry that he was 99.9 percent sure he was done making moves for the offseason and the team would report to spring training as currently constructed. Even if he isn’t done making moves, it’s pretty safe to assume that any moves Cashman would make would be for a pitcher. Offensively, the Yankees are set.
The Yankees will go into spring training letting Greg Bird and Tyler Austin “compete” for the starting job. Because Bird is coming back from injury and because Austin ended up having a solid rookie debut, first base is really the only starting job that is up for grabs. Back in early November, however, Cashman stated that he is rooting for Bird to win the job outright because Bird has the “higher ceiling.” Though Cashman reiterated that there will be a competition this past week, is it really much of a competition if one of the judges is actively rooting for one over the other?
The only reason Austin even has a shot at the job right now is because Bird is coming off a shoulder injury that caused him to miss the entire 2016 season. However, Bird did get back to playing in 2016 as the Scottsdale Scorpions’ designated hitter in the Arizona Fall League. He came out of the AFL with a clean bill of health, and as long as that story stays true through the spring, the first base job is his to lose. Then the Yankees lineup most likely looks like this:
C - Gary Sanchez
1B - Greg Bird
2B - Starlin Castro
SS - Didi Gregorius
3B - Chase Headley
LF - Brett Gardner
CF - Jacoby Ellsbury
RF - Aaron Judge
DH - Matt Holliday
So what happens to Austin? Assuming the Yankees want a four-man bench, 13 position players and 12 pitchers, three of the four bench spots are locked in. As long as they’re all healthy, Austin Romine, Ronald Torreyes, and Aaron Hicks will be on the major league roster. Between the three of them, the only position that isn’t covered is first base. So one would assume that leaves that fourth bench spot open for Austin. Though in reality, Rob Refsnyder could actually give him competition.
Essentially, Austin finds himself competing for one of two spots on the major league roster, and there’s a chance he doesn’t win either.
The Case For: As PSA’s Jason Cohen wrote a few days ago, with patience and power, Tyler Austin can succeed at the MLB level. He has always been known as a player who had a good eye at the plate and as someone who could take a walk. Additionally with the dimensions of Yankee Stadium, he could see a boost in his home run numbers. Essentially, he has the upside as a hitter.
Additionally, he’s a true first baseman. Refsnyder learned first base on the fly, and in an emergency situation last year, so it’s not a natural position for him. And first base is one of the only places that isn’t properly covered by the rest of the bench. Austin’s natural ability to play the position definitely gives him advantages. If Bird needs to be eased into the role, Austin backing him up could ease some defensive concerns for Joe Girardi. In a pinch, Austin can also play the corner outfield positions.
The Case Against: He could just waste away on the bench. If Bird continues where he left off in 2015, the backup first baseman could see very little playing time. Then if the need does arise for Austin to step in long-term, he could end up being rusty. The Yankees would end up sacrificing offense while Austin gets caught up. If Austin was down in Scranton though, he could benefit from getting regular playing time. This would allow him to keep his timing, and in the event that Bird goes down again, he could come up and step right in.
The Case For: Refsnyder “plays” five of the eight non-pitcher defensive positions. Outside of shortstop, catcher, and center field, Refnsyder saw time at every position in the majors and minors last year. He’s almost like a super-utility guy. He’s Ben Zobrist but not as good. However, we’ve all seen baseball games get wacky. Injuries, blowouts, and 19-inning games happen. When Joe Girardi has to get creative, I’m sure he’d be happier having someone like Refsnyder who can at least fake it at multiple positions rather than being forced to play someone like Romine at second base.
The Case Against: Rob Refsnyder’s facial defense method. Even though Refsnyder can technically play multiple positions, he’s not very good anywhere. On more than one occasion at third base, Refsnyder tried fielding a baseball with his face rather than his glove. The results were predictably ugly. While there were rumors of MLB allowing other fielders to wear catcher’s masks, so far the effort seems fruitless. So whenever Girardi did call on Refsnyder’s number, he’d likely be covering his face with his hands but peeking through his fingers.
Additionally, Refsnyder experienced an extreme power loss in 2016. After hitting 11 home runs between the minors and majors in 2015, Refsnyder hit only two home runs in 2016. Neither of them came in the majors. In 2015, Refsnyder hit two home runs in 43 at-bats, compared to zero in 152 at-bats in 2016. Though Refsnyder is reportedly working on his power this offseason, he’ll have to prove that he’s made significant strides in order to get a job on Girardi’s club.
Of course all of this is moo point if somehow Tyler Austin ends up winning the first base job. However, assuming Greg Bird wins the first base job as expected, who would you rather see win that last spot on the roster: Tyler Austin or Rob Refsnyder?
*Season statistics provided courtesy of Baseball Reference