Yankees expect ‘growing pains’ as Ben Rice continues to learn first base

Hours before making his major league debut, Ben Rice took the field at Yankee Stadium.

Rice, who had never been to the ballpark before Tuesday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, had a first baseman’s mitt on his hand and infield coach Travis Chapman and coaching assistant Brett Weber by his side. Together, the three began getting Rice acclimated to the first base bag in the Bronx, which he will be spending lots of time at with Anthony Rizzo out with an arm fracture.

Chapman expects some “growing pains.”

“He’s smart. He’s willing to learn. I’ll take that to start,” the coach told the New York Daily News. “The reality is he needs to get comfortable out there and get used to playing there part-time, every day, whenever [Aaron Boone] puts him in the lineup, and we’ll continue to work on it. Hopefully we’ll see progress throughout these first several weeks, and hopefully we see an awesome guy out there making the other guys around him better.”

A catcher by trade, the 25-year-old Rice had played in just 22 games at first this season between Double-A Somerset and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Yankees’ 12th-best prospect had totaled 55 professional appearances at the position before being promoted on Tuesday.

Now Rice is being asked to take over the position at the major league level. He has a little more than a month to show that he can handle it with the trade deadline looming.

“It’s a learning process,” Rice said. “We’re gonna keep getting extra work in over there with Chappy every day. I’m excited with the progress I’ve made and I’m gonna keep improving.”

Brad Ausmus, managing with Boone attending his son’s high school graduation on Tuesday, said that the Yankees know “there’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve” with Rice at first.

That’s on top to the general learning curve that comes with playing in the majors for the first time.

“I’m sure he’ll have extra nerves on defense because it’s not his primary position,” Ausmus said, “but we have confidence that he’ll be fine over there.”

Added Chapman: “We think he’s ready to come play first base for the New York Yankees. That’s saying a lot.”

Fortunately for Rice, Rizzo also plans on assisting the prospect.

Rizzo’s defense took a step back this season before his injury, but he’s a four-time Gold Glover and ready to mentor Rice as he continues to learn the position and other aspects of major league life.

“Opportunities in the big leagues are not easy to come by, so hopefully he runs with it and does really well,” said Rizzo, who won’t see game action for at least eight weeks. “I’ll be here. I’ll lend a hand if needed. It’s exciting for him and his family. I’ll definitely help with how guys are trying to pitch and whatnot and just be here and be a presence.”

While Rice’s defense is a question mark at this stage, there are fewer concerns about his left-handed swing.

Over 60 minor league games this year, Rice slashed .275/.393/.532 with 15 home runs, 36 RBI and nine stolen bases. Only 11 games into his promotion to Triple-A, Rice hit .333/.440/.619 with three homers and 10 RBI for the RailRiders.

On Tuesday, Rice found himself batting sixth and wearing No. 93.

“He’s definitely a big league hitter,” a source said before Rice’s promotion became official. “He’ll have adjustments to make, just like any hitter that goes to the big leagues for the first time. But he is very equipped to be able to make those adjustments as he learns from how the league adjusts to him.”

A 12th-round draft pick in 2021, Rice began turning heads last season when he hit .327/.401/.648 with 16 dingers and 48 RBI over 48 games at Double-A. That performance earned the Dartmouth product an invitation to big league camp this past spring.

That invite made Rice’s first day in the Bronx a bit easier.

“It definitely makes you feel a little bit more comfortable being the new guy here,” he said. “A lot of familiar faces from camp, so definitely helps me kind of ease into it a little more.”

Added Rizzo, a former sixth-round pick: “I saw him in spring. I thought he was great. His locker was near mine. I thought he was a great kid, thought he handled himself really well. It’s exciting. It’s a great opportunity for him. I know a he’s a later draft pick, so me not being the highest draft pick, I’m definitely excited for him.”

Rice said that a promotion wasn’t on the top of his mind on Monday, even after news of Rizzo’s injury broke. However, Triple-A manager Shelley Duncan FaceTimed the farmhand around 10 p.m.

Duncan told Rice to ignore the RailRiders’ Tuesday schedule, as he’d be busy in the Bronx.

Rice immediately called his dad, a former pitcher at Brown University, who was with Rice’s mom and sister. The family and Rice’s girlfriend were expected to attend the debut.

A childhood Yankees fan, Rice idolized Derek Jeter and read his biography despite living outside of Boston. Now he’ll get to play on the same field that Jeter once roamed. He hopes to show off his bat and his glove.

“There’s gonna be a little nerves,” Rice said, “but they’re good nerves.”