Yankees could have their future 1st baseman climbing the farm system

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According to ZiPS, the two positions that will provide the most problems for the Yankees in 2024 are first base and the designated hitter spot, which isn’t unsurprising given the struggles Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton had this past season. With both hitters getting up there in age, not only do you have a concern about how much they can improve from their career-worst marks, but injuries linger as well. Rizzo has consistently dealt with back issues, and Stanton has been on the IL in each of the last five seasons.

The Yankees will need some insurance at both positions, and after a breakout season in Double-A with the Somerset Patriots, Ben Rice could make a serious impact in the Bronx this upcoming season.

Combing Great Power Tools and a Feel For Contact

The ability to generate damage contact is important, a general rule of thumb is that hitting the ball harder usually increases the expectancy of a batted ball converting for a hit. That principle is what sets the foundation for hitting, and as we include other details and nuances, we get a better understanding of what a hitter can bring to the table. If you generate high exit velocities, it’s important that you also get the ball in the air to maximize your ability to crush the baseball, as there’s a clear discrepancy between hard-hit flyballs and groundballs (? 95 MPH).

  • Groundalls: .353 wOBA
  • Line Drives: .743 wOBA
  • Flyballs: .833 wOBA

Ben Rice can crush the baseball, generating batted balls north of 110 MPH and having a 90th Percentile Exit Velocity above 104 this season in particular, checking off the initial box for a reliable power bat. Pair that with a 43.5% flyball rate and 24.3% line drive rate, and you have a hitter who generates most of that damage in the air. There’s still one variable in one’s ability to generate game power that we’ve yet to discuss, and that’s the all-important Spray Angle.

Spray angle measures the direction a batted ball is hit toward, and when it comes to hitting the ball in the air, pulling the ball is quintessential for success. There’s a dramatic difference in OPS when a flyball is pulled (2.239) versus when it’s hit the other way (.598), and the ability to consistently pull the ball in the air can increase home run-to-flyball rates. Ben Rice pulled 51.6% of batted balls, but to pull the ball means getting out in front of the ball, and that means making earlier swing decisions.

Earlier swing decisions can leave a hitter susceptible to chasing out of the zone and whiffing, and yet Ben Rice hasn’t had either of those issues. He chased at under 20% of pitches out of the zone this season with a contact rate above 78% as well, meaning his tendency to pull the ball hasn’t hurt his ability to make good swing decisions and avoid strikeouts, and his power-contact combination was unique.

Among MiLB hitters in the top ten in Isolated Power, Ben Rice had the lowest strikeout rate (18.7%), and the ability to blend all of those advanced plate skills with incredible game power makes him one of the best hitters in the Minor Leagues. If there’s one thing that’s held against Rice, however, it’s the fact that he was 24 last season. Is he just an older hitter beating up on inexperienced pitching, or is there more to this talking point?

Experience Versus Age in Prospect Evaluation

Ben Rice is older than most hitters at Double-A, but it’s not because he was struggling at lower levels of the Minor Leagues, but rather the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Going to Dartmouth, he didn’t play in the NCAA, and Ivy schools canceled not only the remainder of their 2020 season but also the entirety of their 2021 season as well due to the aforementioned health crisis. Rice got just 30 games of collegiate baseball, playing 83 games at various summer leagues to try and make up for the lost games.

In terms of Minor League games, Rice had just 91 total games of professional experience entering 2023, meaning that from 2019-2022, Rice had played 204 total games due to various cancellations and external factors. It’s an unfortunate situation, but how often you play matters more than a one or two-year difference in age when it comes to evaluating college hitters. The Yankees can snuff out prospect flukes from legitimate talent, despite what most people believe, and they’ve sung high praise for Ben Rice.

Joe Migliaccio, who is the Yankees’ MiLB Hitting Coordinator, mentioned that he believed Ben Rice was a top 10 hitter in the organization last year, and that’s the kind of confidence that indicates the organization believes in him. A hitter who displayed a similar combination of power and contact was Andres Chaparro, who the organization left off of their 40-man roster in consecutive winters and let walk to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Andres Chaparro, MLB, Yankees
Feb 26, 2023; Dunedin, Florida, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Andres Chaparro (87) waits for the ball as Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Cavan Biggio (8) gets an infield single in the second inning at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

In his age-23 season, the right-handed slugger posted a 158 wRC+ and hit 19 HRs in just 64 games for the Somerset Patriots, and yet he was left unprotected by the Yankees in the 2023 Rule 5 Draft. Estevan Florial has been one of the best hitters at Scranton for the past two seasons, and the team refused to play him until they had no choice last year. The Yankees will never outright say they don’t believe in a player; that would be malpractice, but their actions are deafening.

They, alongside many prospect evaluators, have fallen in love with Ben Rice’s bat, but there are concerns about his ability to hold up at a position and generate defensive value. Coming up as a catcher, he’s gotten an extended look behind the dish, but it’s unclear whether he’ll make the defensive strides necessary to improve those tools. This is where age does come into play, as while for a prospect like Austin Wells, they could keep him in the Minor Leagues for a couple of years to get him action behind the dish and work on defensive skills in-game, Rice doesn’t have that kind of time.

He’ll have to slide over to first base, and that does hurt his defensive value and places pressure on the bat to be more than just good, but what can the Yankees expect from him in 2024?

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Ben Rice Could Impact the Yankees in 2024

If Austin Wells or Jose Trevino were to go down with an injury, Ben Rice wouldn’t be coming up to replace him. They’d likely go to Carlos Narvaez, and that’s the right choice. Having a defensively sound backstop is extremely important, and the Yankees have valued that a lot more in recent years for a reason. Trading Gary Sanchez was a matter of a change of scenery but also of a shift in philosophy for the Yankees, who began valuing defense and pitching a lot more.

The shift has worked for them on the pitching side of things, but the offense regressing heavily in 2023 has created a yearning for more power in the batting order. Ben Rice would likely come up if there was a hole at first base, however, and I’d expect that the Yankees will continue to get him innings at the position. He could also serve as a DH option for the team, and projections believe that Rice could hold his own at the plate.

Steamer projects him for a 103 wRC+, and ZiPS projects him for a 106 OPS+, and it’s important to understand what those two projections mean. It’s not dictating that Rice will put up exactly those numbers, but rather that the chances that Rice puts up a wRC+ or OPS+ below that mark are equal to his chances of putting up a number above that mark. It’s the median outcome, and for a prospect, that’s an excellent outcome for a player with zero experience at Triple-A.

Considering the injuries the Yankees have routinely suffered in their position player group, Ben Rice is going to be waiting for his chance to make his mark at the Major League level. The offensive skillset is perfect for the modern game and for the Bronx, and the Yankees love the profile as well. His struggles against left-handed pitching could hold him back from a full-time role, but if he’s even playable in those matchups, he could flourish as their first baseman of the future.

The Yankees won’t rely on Ben Rice to open the season, but if the opportunity is there, don’t be surprised if he’s in the Bronx at some point in 2024.