Yankees could look internally to fix a potential problem at first base

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First base has become a bit of a problem for the Yankees, as Anthony Rizzo is off to a slow start after a lost season in 2023 due to his concussion. It’s far too early to call for a change to their regular lineup, especially for a player with zero experience above the Double-A level, but Ben Rice is certainly pushing the envelope. Still in Double-A with the Somerset Patriots, the left-handed first baseman has now hit a home run in four straight games, and this is after absolutely demolishing the Eastern League last season.

Ben Rice has a stellar package of offensive tools that allow him to perform at such a high level and the Yankees should be eyeing a potential promotion to the Bronx for him sometime this summer.

Ben Rice Could Be an Option For the Yankees This Summer

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers
Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

Something that the New York Yankees are beginning to embrace is their farm system, turning to some of their internal talent to try and find everyday regulars on their roster. Austin Wells, Jasson Dominguez, and Anthony Volpe are all expected to be in their lineup by season’s end, with players like Caleb Durbin, Jorbit Vivas, and Spencer Jones being on the verge of making their MLB debut.

Ben Rice is considered part of that group of position players who could break through in the coming months, and his hot start has made that conversation a lot louder in recent days. The 25-year-old has hit a home run in four straight games, and the ability to drive the baseball consistently to right field is extremely enticing given how well his swing plays for Yankee Stadium.

With high pulled flyball rates and excellent raw power, Ben Rice is a powerful hitter who can do damage on contact frequently, and it’s why he’s been a launching pad in Somerset. If you extrapolated his pace across 150 games, he would have 51 home runs, a ridiculous total that would rival the likes of the top power hitters in the game. The swing decisions are excellent, and there’s a legitimate argument to make that he could be an MLB-caliber hitter right now.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

The results are excellent, as you can see there’s a combination of excellent power while running a strikeout rate below what other Double-A hitters had. Looking at some other data, we can see that Ben Rice has also done an excellent job of consistently elevating the baseball while running high pull rates as well, giving him a perfect swing for the Bronx. We all know of the short porch in right field, and just looking at Ben Rice’s violent swing can help you see how it’s been tailor-made to deposit baseballs over the 314 sign.

Another huge green flag is that while he’s consistently getting the baseball in the air, he’s also hitting the ball hard in the process, averaging 91 MPH in terms of exit velocity. The raw power is a plus tool, but his game power is some of the best in all of Minor League Baseball because of how much he can maximize his frame and swing.

When you look at how projection systems view him, there’s an agreement between ZiPS and Steamer that his median outcome would be an above-average offensive outcome. Steamer (102) had Ben Rice as their ninth-best offensive projection in terms of wRC+, made even more notable by the fact that he has yet to play a game at the Triple-A level. ZiPS is even more bullish on what Rice would be this season, as he was tied with Anthony Rizzo (108) as the fifth-best projected player on the team.

There’s a lot of variance with projecting a player who has not taken a single at-bat as an MLB player, an important asterisk whenever looking at this data, but it’s still promising. Looking at the range of outcomes projected here, there is some reason to believe that the Yankees could try to bring him up during the season.

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Looking at what ZiPS believed entering the season, Ben Rice and Anthony Rizzo shared similar floors and median outcomes, but it’s the ceiling where there’s a clear difference. Whether it’s youth or a projection based on the aforementioned raw power tools, it’s very interesting that there was a belief that Rice would be the better option at first base for the Yankees. I think it would have been foolish to bench a player under contract for a prospect, and even today I think it’s far too soon to make that kind of swap.

That being said, Anthony Rizzo has a .306 OBP, .284 SLG%, and 75 OPS+; the early signs resemble closer to a 10th Percentile outcome for the veteran first baseman. He could turn things around, but there are legitimate concerns that this is an age-related regression and not just a nasty early-season slump. In Somerset, Ben Rice has a 144 wRC+ and is slugging .542, continuing to rocket through the Eastern League.

Perhaps the most concerning regression thus far for Anthony Rizzo comes on the defensive side of the ball, where you would naturally assume Ben Rice would be at a significant disadvantage. The limited experience the 25-year-old has at first base (291.1 innings) would give any evaluator pause about bringing Rice up to replace a former Gold Glover, but this season Rizzo is down to -2 OAA and has made quite a few boneheaded defensive plays. When you aren’t getting power or defense from a position like first base, then you immediately think about finding a replacement.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees
Aug 3, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo (48) speaks to the media during a press conference after being placed on the 10-day injured list with post-concussion syndrome before a game against the Houston Astros at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Should the leash for Anthony Rizzo be long enough that the Yankees stick with him at first base until the trade deadline?

That’s a question I don’t have a clear answer to, he could still in theory turn things around and earn that, but if he continues to slump I’d say the team should go to Ben Rice by Memorial Day. Part of this also hinges on how well Ben Rice is playing, if he continues to surge then you might be more inclined to make an aggressive promotion. T.J. Rumfield, who is the Scranton RailRiders’ first baseman right now, should not be counted out of this conversation either, as he has a strong left-handed swing that the Yankees have taken a liking to.

What the Yankees have going for them is that they’re playing at a 105-win pace, but teams have done an excellent job of converting prospect talent into everyday regulars. Time will tell with the likes of Anthony Volpe, Austin Wells, and Jasson Dominguez, but Ben Rice could be part of that new wave as well. His offensive skillset could give the team a much-needed left-handed boost, and all he’s done is mash at whatever level he’s played at. Sure, Rice doesn’t have experience above the Double-A, but the Yankees have seemingly rushed guys through Scranton.

It’s a situation that will continue to evolve and develop, but we’re getting dangerously close to having to ask some extremely difficult questions about the Yankees at first base.

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