The New York Yankees announced 19 non-roster invitees to Spring Training on Monday morning.
The group was highlighted by right-hander Clarke Schmidt, arguably the best starting pitcher in the system and one that can make his major league debut as early as this season.
Veterans Tyler Lyons, Chris Iannetta, David Hale, Luis Avilan and Josh Thole were all invited to Tampa, as were prospects Alexander Vizcaino, Kyle Holder, Domingo Acevedo and Trey Amburgey, among others.
But it’s Chris Gittens who should have Yankees fans both intrigued and excited.
A former community college standout and 12th round draft pick in 2014, the 6’4” right-handed hitting first baseman was once an organizational afterthought but has blossomed into one of the most underrated talents in a strong Yankees farm system.
Gittens started his professional career in impressive fashion in 2015 when he slashed .363/.452/.645 in the Gulf Coast League, resulting in a promotion to High-A for a cup of coffee with the then-Tampa Yankees. Gittens’ tendency to reach base at a high clip, as well as flash power potential, resulted in a steady rise through the system; he played a full season in the Sally League with Charleston in 2016, then returned to Tampa the following season before reaching Double-A in 2018.
Unfortunately for Gittens, his climb up the organizational chart came to a halt that year when a hip injury restricted him to a .624 OPS in just 57 games.
Gittens entered 2019 as the Thunder’s starting first baseman, looking to rehab both his injury off the field and his success on it – and he did just that. The Sherman, Texas native put together one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory as he paced the Eastern League in on-base percentage (.393), slugging percentage (.500), OPS (.893), home runs (23) and RBI (77) while adding a .281 batting average, .371 BABIP and 164 wRC+ in 115 games, resulting in being named the Eastern League’s Most Valuable Player. His regular season success was also the driving force behind the Thunder’s ascendance as Eastern League champions.
Gittens’ power numbers speak for itself, as does his ability to hit to all fields. He’s been profiled by some as a future designated hitter but his improvements on the defensive end haven’t gone unnoticed; after all, he was named the best defensive first baseman in 2019 by Eastern League managers. His strikeout totals are high but his tendency to work deep counts as well as an improved walk rate (he posted a career-high 14.9 BB% in 2019) has scouts raving about his potential.
“That power is tantalizing, and he has a good eye, too,” according to one scout who spoke to Bronx to Bushville. “I think his power will get him to the big leagues, but his continued growth as a defender and as a patient hitter will be the difference between him being an up and down guy and a real contributor.”
As it currently stands, the Yankees are just about set at first base.
Luke Voit will enter 2020 the starter. He may leave a lot to be desired on the defensive end, but there is no doubt that Voit’s capability of getting deep into counts (he saw nearly four pitches per plate appearance in 2019) and ability to both get on base and hit for power at a high clip (.842) makes him one of the most underrated hitters on the roster.
Mike Ford is currently penciled in to serve as Voit’s primary backup, and for good reason – in his first full big league season, he slashed .259/.350/.559 in 143 at-bats. He’s also only one of four left-handed hitters who are expected to be on the opening day roster, something the Yankees sorely need to help break up their lineup.
The path to the Bronx isn’t quite clear for Gittens. But injuries happen, as do slumps.
If Voit and/or Ford fall into either one of those categories, Gittens very well can get his first taste of The Show in 2020.
Dan Federico is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville