In mid-February, the Yankees signed veteran slugger Jay Bruce to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. He started the Grapefruit League nicely, going 4-for-6 with a homer, but cooled off and finished the warm-up games with a .206/.289/.441 line.
It wasn’t a scintillating performance by any means, but Luke Voit got injured, and suddenly it was decision time for the Yankees. Bruce had a clause in his pact that stated the Yankees needed to add him to the 40-man roster or release him by March 25th, and the first scenario came to fruition once it was revealed that Voit would be out for several weeks.
Bruce was declared the starter at first base until Voit was ready to return, but the early returns for Bruce have to have fans concerned that he can make it all the way through Voit’s recovery. The lefty slugger is 3-for-24 to start the campaign and only has one extra-base hit. The Yankees’ idea was for him to take advantage of the short porch in right field, but that just hasn’t materialized outside of one fly ball he snuck over the right field fence. As my colleague Dan pointed out on Twitter last night, this slump stretches far beyond more than a mere week in April, too:
Going back to July 2019, Jay Bruce’s last 170 PA have resulted in a .152/.212/.373 line which is good for a 50 wRC+ ... combined with mediocre defense, and I think I’ve seen enough of him in the Yankees lineup— Dan Kelly (@Dan_KellyPSA) April 10, 2021
Additionally, Bruce’s defense at first base has been suspect. It’s evident that it isn’t his natural position, as Wednesday’s play against the Orioles showed when he couldn’t catch Gleyber Torres’ throw. It was certainly a bad throw by the shortstop, but a quality first sacker should end up with that ball.
So, given that Bruce has been subpar both offensively and defensively, should the Yankees go ahead and automatically pencil his name in the lineup card day in and day out until Luke Voit returns?
It’s obviously very early, so perhaps some caution is warranted, and it would be reasonable for the Yankees just a little bit more time to get going. But unlike some of the team’s slow starters, such as Gleyber Torres and Gio Urshela, the Yankees have little to gain by giving Bruce a very long leash, especially considering the fact that he is not really a natural first baseman. Players like Torres and Urshela have recent track records of performance; Bruce does not. If he is not hitting and not getting it done on the field, then what would be the point of sticking with him as the unquestioned starter until May or June or whenever Voit is ready?
The Yankees could explore several avenues if they choose to move on without Bruce. They could theoretically play Tyler Wade at second and slide DJ LeMahieu to first base, where he has some recent experience, having started 28 games there in 2019. However, Wade just hasn’t shown much offensively, or at least not enough to warrant a starting position (and was just demoted in favor of the next man to be discussed).
There’s also the matter of Rougned Odor, whose acquisition could signal that the Yankees are plotting a short-term future with the former Ranger at second base and LeMahieu sliding over to first base. As of Odor’s activation to the roster this morning, Bruce remains on the team and in the starting lineup at first, but that may only last so long. If the Yankees soon decide that they’re more comfortable with a LeMahieu/Odor tandem at first and second than Bruce/LeMahieu, then Bruce’s days could be numbered.
Of course, the Yankees also have Mike Ford ready to play whenever needed, and — like it or not — he is ahead of Chris Gittens on the farm system depth chart. In fact, the Bombers recalled Ford from their alternate training site yesterday, if only for a game. He did struggle last season to the tune of a .496 OPS over 84 plate appearances, but slashed .259/.350/.559 with 12 homers and a 134 wRC+ in 163 plate appearances a couple of years ago. Ford would make this decision much easier if he profiled as a strong defensive first baseman, but he unfortunately looks subpar at the cold corner too.
Then, there is Mike Tauchman. A superb defensive outfielder, he said back in spring training that he was open to playing at first. He is more dynamic than Bruce and Ford and could plausibly adapt to the position, but the situation would be very similar to the one currently taking place: a natural outfielder playing out of position — and still learning it, too. Nonetheless, there are all sorts of options on the table.
Long story short: the Yankees have a variety of ways to navigate the rest of Voit’s absence, and that means Bruce needs to get going fast. Otherwise, the Yankees would be better off trying to get creative in bridging the gap to Voit.