The New York Yankees Opening Day roster included outfielders Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki who are 36, 38 and 40 years old respectively. Beltran and Soriano were productive hitters as recently as 2013, posting OPS+ of 128 for Beltran and 114 for Soriano. Suzuki was not as good last year, as his OPS+ was only 75. All three have also slowed down considerably in the field. Suzuki a 10-time gold glove award winner is not the defensive force he once was. Beltran, once a fleet center fielder now spends most of his time in one of the outfield corners or as designated hitter. Soriano, whose career has seen him move from shortstop to second base to left field, is now best suited for DH. The Yankees also opened the season with Mark Teixeira, who just turned 34, as their first baseman. Teixeira is injury prone and like those three outfielders is in the decline phase of his career.
The first few weeks of the season saw one unexpected and one expected event occur for the Yankees. The unexpected event is that all three veteran outfielders, particularly Suzuki and Beltran were hitting. The expected event was that the increasingly brittle Teixeira missed a bit of time due to an injury. Additional injuries forced the Yankees to start Francisco Cervelli, a light hitting backup catcher at first base, twice. Cervelli himself got hurt and Beltran filled in ably for part of a game. Fortunately for the Yankees, Kelly Johnson, an off-season pickup expected to play mostly at third base has been hitting well and playing fine at first base.
This all raises the question of why nobody on the Yankees in spring training looked around and saw an injury prone first baseman, three veteran outfielders vying for time in right and DH -- center field and left field are occupied by Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury, two of the Yankees best players -- and thought to give one of the veterans a first baseman's glove. First base is generally considered the least demanding defensive position to play, but it is not easy to play any position competently at the big league level. Nonetheless, Suzuki, Beltran and Soriano, although older and slower than they were a few years ago, are all still relatively athletic and have proven themselves to be decent defenders in the past. With a little work it is likely that any of those three could have learned a decent enough first base.
On many teams the failure to take this step would have been less significant because after Teixeira went down with an injury, the team would have called up a decent hitting first baseman from the minors. The Yankees, however, have one of the weakest farm systems in baseball so were unable to do this. The combined lack of a decent minor league system and unwillingness to make a somewhat obvious move in spring training, put the Yankees in a potentially tough situation less than two weeks into the season. Fortunately, solid starting pitching, particularly from Masahiro Tanaka, one of the Yankees most expensive off-season acquisitions, and Michael Pineda who appears to be healthy and ready to be a good big league pitcher again, and good offense from people like Ellsbury, Beltran and 26 year old heretofore minor league journeyman Yangervis Solarte, have helped get the Yankees off to a good start.
While the Yankees have an unusual situation as they, for reasons not altogether clear, seem to be stockpiling veteran outfielders who could potentially play first base, the absence of outfield to first base conversions is reasonably widespread. This used to be relatively common. Hall of Famer outfielders such as Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle and Henry Aaron spent significant time at first base at the end of their careers, as did players like Cesar Cedeno, Frank Howard and Dwight Evans, all very good players but not quite Hall of Famers. This has been much less common in the last 20-30 years. This is partially due to the designated hitter rule which has provided a place other than first base to put an aging slugger in need of a rest, but that does not explain the unwillingness of teams to innovate, or more accurately go back to an old and smart way of doing things.
Using aging outfielders at first base on teams that do not have a star first baseman not only makes sense for teams like the Yankees, but for players as well. Veterans like Beltran, Soriano and Suzuki have tremendous professional and financial incentive to play at the big league level for as long as possible. After all, big league baseball players make a lot more money than almost everybody else in the world. Additionally, many of these players are chasing important milestones, such as 3,000 hits for Suzuki or 400 home runs for Beltran that could influence how they are remembered and even their chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame.
Baseball is a game where teams are currently trying to innovate to gain a slight advantage over other teams. The Yankees failure to do this has become almost their franchise identity, but missing another opportunity this year is nonetheless unfortunate.