At six-foot-four and 250 pounds, Chris Gittens cuts an imposing figure manning first base for Double-A Trenton. The 25-year-old steadily rose through the Yankees system after being drafted out of Grayson County College in Denison, Texas. This season, however, he has broken out in a big way.
Gittens showed promise from the start of his professional career, posting a 1.097 OPS in the Gulf Coast League during the 2015 campaign. In subsequent seasons with increased playing time, he showed more solid offensive production, moving through Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa with a combined 34 home runs in 180 games.
After three years of steady progress, though, Gittens faced adversity in 2018. While starting the season with the Trenton Thunder, he sustained a left hip injury that forced him to the injured list multiple times, limiting him to 57 ineffective games. The leap from High-A to Double-A ball is considered by many as the biggest jump a player will face in the minors. It proved difficult to tell if Gittens was hampered by his injuries, or if the more advanced pitchers at the next level exposed his weaknesses.
Through his play this season, however, Gittens has shown he can handle his own. He is near the top of the Eastern League in most of the offensive categories, hitting .303/.428/.559. He is also near the top of the league with 10 home runs and 33 RBI. From a sheer production standpoint, Gittens compares favorably to the numbers current Mets rookie Pete Alonso produced at this level in 2018. In 65 games in the Eastern League last season, Alonso slashed .314/.440/.573 before earning a promotion to Triple-A.
Gittens does many things that the Yankees value as an organization. He is walking at a rate of 17%, allowing him to have a high on-base percentage. As a right-handed hitter, he generates most of his power to the opposite field. This approach is perfectly suited to take advantage of the Yankees Stadium short porch should he continue to move through the system.
Already beyond his first season of Rule 5 eligibility, Gittens’ improved play is forcing the organization to make a decision on his future with the franchise. As a first baseman and designated hitter, he will face strong internal competition for a 40-man roster spot. Luke Voit, the major-league incumbent, has a spot locked down. Meanwhile Mike Ford is having a tremendous season for Triple-A Scranton, thus leaving Gittens competing with the oft-injured Greg Bird and Ryan McBroom for a roster position.
Gittens’ play this season is demanding positive attention. Will he be a solid trade chip this July? Will he be the one who bounces Bird off the 40-man roster ahead of his second season of arbitration? Or will the Yankees be comfortable carrying a host of first basemen in Voit, Ford, Bird, McBroom and Gittens through the winter? Time will tell, but Gittens’ performance is definitely worthy of discussion.