The downside to Chris Gittens’ Yankees promotion

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Chris Gittens’ arrival with the Yankees on Saturday serves as an organizational victory and even more so a triumph for the 27-year-old himself, a 12th-round pick in the 2014 amateur draft (props to area scout Mike Leuzinger for touting him) who persevered and got his big call late Friday night.

How about his father telling him nearly seven years ago, after getting drafted, “I’m not coming to see you play until you make it to the big leagues”? The elder Gittens honored that vow — “Little motivation, little push for me to get where I am right now,” his son said — by watching hundreds of minor league games on the MILB app and indeed showing up in The Bronx on Saturday night for Gittens’ major league debut, starting at first base, against the Red Sox.

Then at some point the happiness you feel for Gittens intersects with the misery surrounding this Yankees team that sparked his promotion. The righty swinger becomes the latest pinstriped Next Man Up, and he must thrive in a way his predecessors, after doing so in prior seasons, absolutely have not in 2021.

“These guys know how to hit,” Gittens said Saturday of his new teammates. “They’ve been here before, If we’re up 4-0, why am I trying to just go all out with a home run right then and there? Just do my part.”

Chris Gittens
Chris Gittens

No one on the Zoom call assumed the party-pooper role to inform Gittens that the Yankees last enjoyed a 4-0 lead on May 22 against the White Sox, 12 games ago. Or that while evidence exists that these guys know how to hit, more recent data contemplates whether many of them have forgotten how to hit.

Look back at the Yankees in 2018 and 2019, Aaron Boone’s first two seasons as manager. The ’18 group introduced Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres and Luke Voit as intriguing hitters, each of them putting up an OPS+ of over 100 (which represents league average). The ’19 team followed with Mike Ford, Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela, plus the more established DJ LeMahieu blowing away all expectations after signing a two-year, $24-million contract.

That’s eight guys possessing considerable upside. Of that octet, only Urshela, at 103, brought an above-average OPS+ into Saturday’s contest. Tauchman is a Giant, and not hitting much there, either (although better than Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner), and Ford is back at the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate that just wished Gittens well after he put together a slash line of .283/.486/.585 in 18 games.

It represents such a seismic cratering that only a silly person would suggest one theory to explain the Yankees’ offense collapsing en masse. The Yankees thought they put together a roster with considerable depth, and the projection services largely agreed with them; even on Saturday, despite carrying a 31-27 record and a Pythagorean mark of 29-29, owning the seventh best American League record when only five clubs per league will qualify for October, Baseball-Reference calculated the Yankees’ playoff chances at 43.2 percent.

Sometimes, though, you require even more depth. Enter Gittens, whose big call came from Yankees senior director of player development Kevin Reese, with this simple message: “They need you.”

You never want to bestow the savior’s pressure on any minor league call-up, although it probably carries more long-term risk on a high-ceiling prospect than on a long-time minor leaguer like Gittens. Furthermore, you like to provide such a newbie with some runway. Yet Boone, reflecting his organization’s urgency to get going, wouldn’t commit to any amount of playing time for Gittens: “It’s day to day right now.”

It’s day to day because of the Yankees’ woes with their bats. Gittens benefits from the circumstances and gets held to a high standard because of them.

Some next man, or former man, must save these Yankees from drowning. Good for Gittens, earning this shot. Can he turn back the franchise clock to merely 2019?

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