Anthony Rizzo has bounced back to grab stunning advantage over top Yankees prospect

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays
New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays / Cole Burston/GettyImages

If you think the New York Yankees offense was a tough watch prior to the weekend series in Milwaukee, you're not wrong. Congratulations on the observation. Now comes the hard part. With so many immobile parts baked in, how do you fix it before 2024? Will moving Alex Verdugo to the cleanup spot be enough to cause real change long-term, or did the Yankees get lucky?

This isn't a question of egos. This isn't a question of poor prospect performance. It's just a matter of roster construction. If Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres, two 2024 cornerstones, aren't very good, the Yankees won't be, either. If they're the two worst hitters in the lineup, the team will sink. That is unfixable.

If Giancarlo Stanton stumbles, the Yankees have some recourse on the way in the form of a midseason Jasson Dominguez infusion (and, based on Stanton's track record, it's more likely than not they'll have to cover for an absence whether he struggles or not).

But ... what about the other seemingly locked-in former All-Star? Aaron Judge's running mate, Anthony Rizzo, doesn't exactly have long-term security; this is his final season in the Bronx, unless the Yankees pick up his 2025 option. If the Yankees do eventually feel the need to make a lineup change or a role shift, they'll have a baked-in 2023 excuse at the ready: Rizzo's reaction time likely remains dulled from the concussion he suffered last May and played through for months.

Less than one week ago, Rizzo's negative WAR, 75 OPS+, and icy blue Savant page seemed to suggest the need to employ a ready-made solution threatening to tear the cover off the ball at Double-A Somerset in Ben Rice. Don't worry, Balance Folks. He's also a lefty.

Anthony Rizzo fights back Father Time, Yankees' move for Ben Rice

One lineup shift later, Rizzo has thrived, emboldening his past seven games to .407/.429/.926 with four homers. Rice? He went 4-for-11 with two doubles and a homer in Somerset's weekend series with Reading and still managed to lose ground to the incumbent. Tough game, but better for the Yankees' immediate future if they can find a way to trust they guy they already have in place.

The argument against Rice's future ability to impact the Yankees has always been two-fold. He's been accused of being positionless, giving Rizzo's advanced glove a clear advantage in any debate (yeah, about that...). He also was so good in 2023, out of Dartmouth, that his advanced bat was deemed a fluke by people who refused to believe in a non-linear development path.

Luckily, the 2021 12th-rounder has begun 2024 exactly where he left off last season, mashing six homers and posting an .902 OPS in his first 78 at-bats. While the Yankees didn't seem to believe he'd proved enough by level-jumping thrice last summer and performing his best in a 48-game sample size at Double-A, he can't have more than a few weeks left in Somerset, based on the pace New York set for him last year.

That means, if he conquers the minors' final level -- and, remember, the Yankees let Anthony Volpe crash the gate after just a few weeks in September -- he should be given a fair path to swipe MLB playing time by the season's second half.

Rice, like versatile infielder Caleb Durbin and out-of-nowhere starting prodigy Trystan Vrieling, make far more sense as "greater than the sum of their parts" future Yankees than they do as trade bait. Each one has likely been overlooked by the baseball world at large, but has been challenged by the Yankees with aggressive promotions, responding with flying colors.

Now, Rice could be the answer to one of the Yankees' logn-term problems, especially with Rizzo's team option looking more and more like space in the budget for Juan Soto's deal as the days go by. But Rizzo heard the knock at the door last week and responded with a resurgence very few saw coming. You have to hand it to him. His presence is far less of a problem if he's not only a part of a well-oiled machine, but all of a sudden one of its key cogs.