The Yankees have been looking high and low for an answer to their gapping hole at first base. The team no longer views Jason Giambi as an everyday option. Instead they have been connected in rumors to players as diverse as Richie Sexon, Shea Hillenbrand, asking second baseman Mark Lorreta to switch positions, last years failed experiment Craig Wilson and the infinitely forgettable Doug Mientkiewicz. The Yankees even choose Quadruple-A star Josh Phelps in the Rule 5 draft as a potential stop gap. Brian Cashman need not look any further. The answer to his first base question is sitting right in front of him in Bernie Williams.
Johnny Damon recently volunteered in an interview to play a game or two at first base each week if it meant Bernie would be brought back, He can still run and he can still hit. Bernie Williams needs to only be in a Yankee uniform. It’s a no-brainer for us. Damon is thinking down the right path, he just chose the wrong player.
The Yankees want a right-hand hitting first baseman to balance out their left-leaning lineup. Well, what is better than a right-hander than a switch hitter who bats .323/.387/.549 from the right side? Overall, Bernie batted .281/.332/.436 last year while filling in for an injury decimated outfield. Clearly as Damon stated, Bernie can still hit. The question is can he still field.
Bernie filled in quite admirably in right last year. However with the discovery of Melky Cabrera, the health of Hideki and Matsui and the trade for Bobby Abreu, Bernie is left as a fifth outfielder at best for this season. However, there is that giant opening at first base. Can Bernie make the switch?
Last year the Yankees were willing to try right fielder Gary Sheffield at first after he returned from injury. The experiment had mixed results at best. The Yankees are now considering a transition of light hitting Mark Lorreta from second to first. Bernie can handle the transition at least as well as those two. He will also have the advantage of a full winter and spring training of practice and adjustment. Bernie would also be following in the tradition of Mickey Mantle who finished the last two years of his illustrious career at first after primarily manning center.
Damon is wise beyond his years, the Yankees need to keep Bernie. However, the Yankees should not trade Melky Cabrera to do so. There have been plenty of rumors featuring Melky heading to the Pirates or the Braves as part of a three-way trade in return for lefty closer Mike Gonzalez, who compares quite favorably to Mike Stanton in his prime. We all know how well Stanton worked out for the Yankees during their World Series years.
Cashman should continue to try to acquire Gonzalez, but not if it means letting Melky go. His youthful spark kept the team churning last season as the injuries piled up and their prospects looked dim. Melky is also a part of the new and very successful youth movement of the Yankees along with Robinson Cano, Chien Ming Wang and hopefully Philip Hughes very soon.
Cabrera is the Yankees best fielding outfielder. He manages left quite well, and can fill in for center or right in a pinch. He shows patience and pitch selection far beyond his 22 years, as evidenced by his .356 OBP and 27/23 strikeout to walk ratio.
If Bernie is unwilling to man first base for the final year of his career, the Yankees could consider moving Hideki Matsui to first permanently. Matsui would then fill the Yankees first base need for the remaining three years of his contract, if not longer.
Melky is a far better left fielder than Matsui, with greater range and a stronger arm. This would also allow both Matsui and Cabrera to start regularly while Bernie can remain the fourth outfielder and occasional DH for the final year of his career. Melky’s progress will not be stunted with infrequent playing time. If he does regress, he could share duties with Bernie who would be a great backup plan.
Either of these moves make too much sense not to happen. Brian Cashman needs to stop looking at mediocre stop gaps at first and bring back a real Yankee for a last hurrah while keeping the future on the team. There is enough room on the roster and plenty of at-bats to go around to accommodate Bernie Williams and Melky Cabrera. Let’s make it happen.