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The case for Mike Ford as the Yankees’ first baseman

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Jay Bruce isn’t getting the job done, and the Bombers should give their longtime minor league slugger a chance.

MLB: New York Yankees at Pittsburgh Pirates Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees have been playing Jay Bruce at first base since the start of the season. The former outfielder is filling in for Luke Voit, who is expected to return in May as he recovers from a partially torn meniscus. However, the Bruce experiment has been far from smooth.

There are plays where he hasn’t looked like a natural, like an MLB first baseman. And hey, it’s not his fault! His primary position is outfielder, although he was never known for his glove at either spot.

Perhaps the Yankees would, or should, go ahead with Bruce as the primary first baseman until Voit returns if Bruce was performing offensively. After all, he is a respected slugger who hit 26 home runs in under 100 games – 98 to be exact – as recently as 2019.

But Bruce hasn’t hit over .225 since 2017, and couldn’t even surpass the Mendoza line last season in 103 plate appearances, hitting .198/.252/.469 with an 83 wRC+. If, at least, he were hitting for power, maybe it would be a worthwhile experiment, but he has only one home run and his .118 isolated power (ISO) is the lowest of his career, one that includes 319 round-trippers.

Of course, it would be unfair to judge Bruce for 39 plate appearances in 2021, but he has been struggling for more than this short season:

Enter Mike Ford. Left-handed just like Bruce, Ford has been in the system for quite a while, was good when he received a somewhat extended look with the Yankees’ big league team in 2019, and unlike Bruce, has been playing first base for virtually all his career.

He may not be a particularly great defensive first baseman, but Ford can at least be passable out there and makes the most basic plays, which is, quite frankly, all the Yankees should ask from him. And while he won’t be winning any Silver Slugger awards, Ford is more of an offensive threat than Bruce at this point of their careers. Bruce has put together a good career, but at 34 years old, it appears that there is little thump left in his bat.

On the other hand, the 28-year-old Ford is still in his prime and deserves his shot. He is on the 40-man roster and provides a league-average bat and a reasonable chance at a league-average bat, evidenced by his career .217/.308/.461 line and 101 wRC+ in 79 games and 247 plate appearances.

Back in 2019, Ford hit 12 home runs in just 163 plate appearances, with an excellent .259/.350/.559 slash and a 134 wRC+. That season, he showed his considerable power, hitting 35 dingers between Triple-A and the majors. Last season was a struggle for Ford, who hit .135/.226/.270 with a low 36 wRC+, but it was half of his 2019 sample (84 plate appearances.)

That awful 2020 balanced out his career line right around average. The projections, for the most part, call on roughly average hitting from him as well. He was a pretty consistent hitter in the minors from 2017 to 2019 before receiving his call to the bigs. There just seems to be more reason to believe Ford can be a reasonably competent stopgap while the Yankees wait for one of their top sluggers to heal.

If the Yankees were to go with Ford until Voit comes back, he could have about a month (more or less, depending on the regular first baseman’s recovery) to recapture his power stroke and flash his ability to take a walk. An impressive performance over the next several weeks could cement him a spot on the bench as a useful lefty bat. Maybe he’s ready to go; he did homer at the alternate site yesterday after all.

Defensively, he won’t be Matt Olson, but at least he will be a first baseman. That’s all the Yankees need him to be. They should give him his chance.