Even with Luke Voit’s knee surgery during spring training, the Yankees have some depth at first base on the 40-man roster. In addition to Jay Bruce, who is currently the team’s starting first baseman, the Yankees have DJ LeMahieu and Mike Ford as players who could slide into the role. But after a strong 2019 season and 2021 spring training, Chris Gittens is forcing his way into the conversation.
2019 Stats (Double-A Trenton): 478 PA, .281/.393/.500, 23 HR, 77 RBI, 22 K%, 29.1 BB%, 164 wRC+
2021 Spring Training Stats: 24 PA, .316/.458/.789, 3 HR, 7 RBI, 8 K, 5 BB, 4.8 OppQual.
Prospect Ranking (Yankees system): 46 (FanGraphs)
Drafted in the twelfth round of the 2014 MLB Draft at the age of 20, Gittens has never been a highly-touted prospect. Even so, he managed to steadily rise through the farm system for four years, reaching Double-A Trenton for his age-24 season. Although he struggled in his first season there, his repeat performance at the level was one for the ages. Gittens posted a 164 wRC+, his highest since his time in the Gulf Coast League (220 wRC in 2015), and he both won the Eastern League MVP and was voted the best defensive first baseman in the league by Baseball America. Furthermore, according to Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs, Gittens’ 96 mph average exit velocity led all minor leaguers (at least, among those that he had exit velocity data for).
Despite this, not only did the Yankees leave him unprotected in the Rule 5-Draft, Gittens went unselected, a testament to how rare it is for 1B/DH types to be taken in the draft. Such players are harder to hide at the back of the roster if they’re unable to make a contribution.
This spring, however, the 27-year-old put himself on the map in a big way, showcasing a power potential similar to Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge.
That March 1 grand slam against the Detroit Tigers traveled 440 feet according to Statcast, with an exit velocity of 114.3 mph; during the entire (abbreviated) 2020 season, only 28 players had a hit harder than that. Of course, the caveat must be made that Gittens did not exactly play extensively against major league pitching this spring — the 4.8 Opponent Quality, a stat calculated by Baseball-Reference, indicates that he tended to face pitchers who had not pitched above Single-A. It’s hard to fault a guy so long as he plays well, since he doesn’t exactly get to decide for himself who he faces. That said, it is something that must be considered when thinking about the possibility that Gittens could make a contribution in the Bronx this season.
If there’s one knock on Gittens’ performance, it’s his high-strikeout rate. For the past six years, it has never been below 27.2% (2017), and has hovered around 30%; for comparison, Aaron Judge never had a season above 28.5% in the minors, and tended to hover around 23-25%. On the flip side, however, he does show great plate discipline, posting a 12.7 BB% in 2018 and 14.9% in 2019 at Trenton — higher than any Judge posted above High-A Tampa. So long as his strikeout rate does not increase and his walk rate does not decline when he makes the jump to Scranton this year, he should be able to tap into his clear power to begin carving out a role for himself.
Ultimately, Gittens still has a lot to prove at Triple-A — and numerous players on the 40-man roster to jump — before he becomes a realistic option for a spot on the big league roster this year. However, as Yankees fans know all too well, depth can evaporate in a moment’s notice; fortunately for the Yankees, as far as low-level prospects who have never played above Double-A go, Gittens is as good a bet as any to make an immediate impact.