April 2013 Prospect Profile: First Basemen
While outfield and catcher are the two positions with the most depth in the Yankees system, first base is slowly creeping up as a contender for that mantle.
Even with Mark Teixeira on the disabled list, the Yankees have plus depth at just the top two levels; Lyle Overbay and ex-Gold Glove winner Kevin Youkilis form a very solid platoon tandem in the Bronx, and at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, former International League MVP Dan Johnson and Luke Murton, who led the organization in home runs last year while at Trenton, do the same.
With the addition of a seventh domestic Minor League team this year, the Yankees will need all the depth they can get at every position, but also have to maintain the delicate balance of keeping talented players on the field despite some potential logjams.
Kyle Roller, who hit .285 with 18 home runs in Tampa last year and moved up to Double-A to replace Murton this year, knows that well; drafted out of East Carolina in the eighth round in 2010, Roller hit .272 at Staten Island as a rookie and then split 2011 between Charleston and Tampa, hitting .284 with 16 homers and 57 RBI. It looked like he might rocket through the system, but because of Murton (among others) being ahead of him, Roller spent the entirety of 2012 still in Tampa before moving up to Trenton this spring.
Numbers-wise, Roller's .266 average was a tick above what he posted in Tampa in 2011 and his 18 homers and 85 RBI were among the system leaders, but there was simply nowhere to go - something Roller understands and knows he can't control.
"I just try to stay within myself and try to get better every day. I can't worry about what others do or anything, I just have to focus on getting better defensively and swinging at good pitches, and everything will take care of itself," Roller said during Spring Training. "Luke (Murton) is a great guy and we pushed each other this spring a bit, and it's great to have that kind of competition, but I have to worry about myself."
As the everyday guy at Double-A, Roller is systematically third in line (fourth if you count Youkilis) to Teixeira's throne, but he knows he has a lot to learn - which was something he reminded himself of every day while he was in Major League camp this spring.
"It was awesome just to get to be around the guys, and I was kind of like a sponge trying to soak everything up," Roller said. "I talked to Youkilis and Travis Hafner a lot, mostly about their approaches to hitting, and it was awesome to learn what they do and try to put it in my game a little bit."
Still, as well as he's played, there are several more looking to break into that pantheon. Saxon Butler has progressed just as quickly through the system in his first full year as Roller did, and there's another close behind who falls into a different category: the position changers.
That would be Charleston first baseman Greg Bird, who also spent some time in Major League camp this spring learning from a new set of peers. Drafted as a catcher in 2011, Bird has switched to first base after a back injury in 2012 brought concerns that he might be better suited elsewhere on the diamond.
Because of that injury and a previous one as a rookie, Bird had played in just 32 games, all for the GCL or Staten Island Yankees, entering this season, but being around the Major Leaguers for a spell this spring helped bring both the position change and the reality of pro baseball into focus for him.
"It was a great experience, just to see how those guys go about their business and see their work ethic and consistency," Bird said. "I think the biggest thing for me was seeing that."
And, while Bird was already reassigned to Minor League camp when Mark Teixeira went down and thus saw no added "extra looks" because of it, he did learn something about organizational depth.
"I mean, I know I won't be in the Majors this year, but I saw that when guys go down, you have to be ready to step in because (an injury) can move everyone up the line a bit," Bird said. "You can learn for the future in that case, and know how to be ready for it next time."
Having moved from one deep position to another burgeoning one, Bird echoed Roller's sentiments about staying inside himself - but added that while you can't control what happens ahead of you, you also can't control what's happening behind you either, so you have to stay focused.
"I just try to go out and work on my game and not try to compare it to anyone," Bird said. "However, the depth helps, because you know you have to continue to get better no matter what; you can't get lazy and sit back and relax."
Bird is a pure power hitter with a compact stroke, so he projects to be a good middle-order hitter, and got off to a solid if not spectacular start in Charleston - but, like Roller, he might be "stuck" with the RiverDogs for now, especially if Saxon Butler continues his hot ways in Tampa and especially if fellow first baseman Matt Snyder, who Butler replaced on the T-Yanks roster, returns and does well.
That's okay for Bird though, who is still a freshman in the world of full-season pro baseball.
"I mostly just want to stay out there for a full season and keep working on my game all around," Bird said. "I need to stay focused throughout the ups and downs, ride out the bumps and have a good year, and we'll go from there."
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