After another lifeless performance from the lineup on Friday night against the Red Sox, the Yankees made a small move by demoting reliever Nick Nelson. At the time, we speculated if this could be the setup to give the offense a boost since the team had been operating with just a three-man bench the past couple days following the demotion of Mike Ford on Wednesday.
Now we know: First baseman Chris Gittens is on his way to the Bronx and will be with the Yankees tonight. A slot on the 40-man roster will need to be cleared for him, so expect something like Corey Kluber moving to the 60-day IL, or maybe a Ryan LaMarre DFA. (Update: Kluber to the 60 is indeed the move.)
At age 27, Gittens is getting his first call-up to the majors. Drafted back in 2014 in the 12th round out of Grayson County College in Texas, Gittens took the long path to The Show. Without much of a prospect shine on him and with better first-base prospects ahead of him, Gittens slowly made his way through the system, first catching eyes by belting a 21 homers for Low-A Charleston in 2016 (second-highest in the South Atlantic League) and hitting .253/.359/.478 with a 140 wRC+.
The adjustment from A-ball to Double-A is one of the toughest for any minor leaguer to make, and Gittens endured a tough year in 2018 that was also plagued by a hip injury, which limited him to 53 games in Trenton. In 2019 though, the righty came out swinging, batting .281/.393/.500 with a league-high 23 homers in 115 games, a 164 wRC+, and some of the best exit velocities in the entire Yankees system. After the pandemic cancelled his 2020, Gittens demonstrated his talents again in Triple-A Scranton at the start of 2021, too, with a .283/.486/.585 with a 189 wRC+ in 18 games.
The big blast from Chris Gittens is our @Hyundai Play of the Game! pic.twitter.com/5r6Cnf9bLB— SWB RailRiders (@swbrailriders) May 15, 2021
First base has been a black hole for the Yankees this season. 2020 home run leader Luke Voit has missed almost the entire season, and the combination of Ford, the retired Jay Bruce, and the underachieving DJ LeMahieu have made the team of Lou Gehrig and Don Mattingly one of the worst in baseball. They needed a spark, especially with the offense in general struggling as much as it is.
No one’s expecting Gittens to match Voit’s 2020 production. The Yankees just need a solid first baseman to put in some good at-bats, hit some bombs, and handle the position with aplomb. Gittens has the pop and he was voted the best defensive first baseman in the Eastern League in 2019, so there’s reason to expect that he’ll fit the bill.
Gittens is a classic “Three True Outcomes” kind of hitter, as he has 80-grade power (Josh noted his opposite-field pop last week, which is amenable to Yankee Stadium’s short porch), takes a good chunk of walks (16.5 percent combined the last two seasons), and, well, the other true outcome. Gittens does swing and miss quite a bit, so fans who detest strikeouts will have to swallow their pride for a bit and be patient. He has cut his strikeout rate down from 29.1 percent in 2019, though that may jump again in a step up to the toughest pitching in the world.
This is the right move. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work — given Gittens’ profile, it wouldn’t be a great surprise if he’s only a little better than Ford. But the Yankees had to try something different with their offense. Maybe Gittens goes on a little run like the 2019 edition of Ford and eases the pressure on the big bats for a little bit, long enough for them to catch fire too. We can only hope. (The other benefit is that Gittens at first means more LeMahieu at second and less Rougned Odor in our lives.)
For now, the message is simple: Congratulations, Chris Gittens! It’s been a long road — hell, I’ve been blogging long enough that I remember writing his name in the minor league recaps during his first pro season. Now, he’s finally made it and it’s time to mash.