By and large, I don’t care about prospects until they hit Double-A, and even then, I keep a fairly distant eye on them. The Yankee system has more high-potential arms than bats anyway, so imagine my surprise this spring when a very large first baseman started clubbing home runs in exhibition play.
Chris Gittens notched a 1.247 OPS in spring ball, albeit in just 24 plate appearances, and hit three out of the park. Since beginning his Triple-A assignment, his first time playing at that high a level, he’s just kept rolling, with a 234 wRC+ in his first 44 PAs. With Luke Voit on the shelf for the foreseeable future, and the Yankees in desperate need of an offensive spark ... why not Chris Gittens?
Let’s start with the pros. The man has elite-level power, 80-grade raw, and the best average exit velo of any player in the minor leagues in 2019 — or at least, any player we have data for. The 27-year-old hits the ball really hard, and in the air more than half the time in his MiLB tenure, two things the Yankees love.
Critically, he also goes to right field a lot, and with a lot of power:
You can see how reliably he can drive doubles and home runs to center and right field. Of the four home runs he’s hit in Triple-A, only one has been pulled. Right-handed hitters with real lift to right field have been the target for the Yankees over the past few years, and the driving force behind the acquisitions of DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit. Gittens seems cut from that same cloth.
Then, there are the plate discipline questions. To Gittens’ credit, this has been the most disciplined he’s ever been in the minors:
Obviously we don’t have any data for 2020, but in the very early goings of 2021, Gittens is walking more than he’s struck out. It’s up to you how you interpret this improvement. For me, I buy that he’s probably cut down on his strikeout rate somewhat. It’s been the most obvious flaw in his game, and he had a full season of alternate site work where he could really just focus on better awareness of the zone and tweaking his swing to create more repeatable contact.
However, it’s hard to imagine Gittens completely flipping the script into Troutian levels of discipline. In his two seasons at Double-A, he only reduced his strikeout rate by a point and a half, despite repeating a level and presumably being more comfortable with the level of competition.
Steamer, which does project performance if a minor leaguer were promoted, isn’t buying the improvement, projecting a 34-percent strikeout rate in the majors — for context, the only Yankee with 20 plate appearances this season that has been close to 34 percent was Jay Bruce, who struck out so much (33.3 percent), that he retired. A 34-percent strikeout rate in the majors could play if Gittens really showed off his power, and indeed, Steamer pegs him for a 97 wRC+, which is much better than what Mike Ford, Rougned Odor, Clint Frazier, and Miguel Andújar have managed for the Yankees.
Derek Dietrich, another possible Voit replacement, hasn’t managed much in Triple-A, save for a high walk rate. He and Gittens are projected for identical 97 wRC+, and the latter probably boasts a much higher ceiling due to the power potential, albeit with a possibly lower floor. Gittens also likely boasts a better glove at first base as well, as while he’s no Mark Teixeira, he built up a solid reputation in the minors, most recently being named by Baseball America as the Eastern League’s top defensive first baseman in 2019.
The last hurdle is the 40-man roster, which conveniently does have one open slot on it. Zack Britton is due off the 60-day IL soon, but the Yankees could still add Gittens without it really hurting the team’s long term outlook. A DFA of Nick Nelson or moving Corey Kluber to the 60-day IL would easily open up a spot for Gittens.
I’m not one to make recommendations based on “what have you got to lose”, because sometimes, that’s used to justify adding a Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, or Chris Carter to the roster. For Gittens, though, he’s shown enough improvement and boasts a ceiling that, to me, warrants a shot at the first base job. The Yankees need offense, and while I don’t completely buy the new discipline, there’s a chance Gittens could raise the ceiling of this lineup at least in the short run, buying the Yankees time for a deadline acquisition. If he gets promoted and falls on his face, well ... the team has a bunch of underwhelming hitters already, you’d just be moving at-bats from one to another.