New York Yankees first baseman Greg Bird soared once called up to the big leagues in 2015, seemingly easing the then impending loss of veteran first baseman Mark Teixeira considering his contract would expire in 2016. Instead, Bird missed the entire 2016 season after surgery on his right shoulder, calling into question his potential imprint on the Yankees 2017 roster.
I felt that Bird was going to be an important piece to the 2016 season. Despite Teixeira's and Alex Rodriguez's comeback seasons in 2015, each had questions marks coming into 2016. Teixeira's season-ending injury in 2015 was just another in a growing line of maladies, and believing a 40-year-old Rodriguez could duplicate his 2015 season was risky.
Bird, a top prospect for the club (he was ranked No. 4 by MLB Pipeline among Yankees' prospects prior to the call-up), made fans forget about Teixeira quickly. The left-handed hitter roped nine doubles, smacked 11 home runs and drove in 31 runs in route to a .871 OPS (135 OPS+). Bird also played sound defense at first base, while blending in well with his teammates. The Yankees were in the middle stages of a transition to younger players, making Bird's success something to be excited about with some of his former teammates making noise in the minor leagues.
Bird's absence from the roster this season hurt the Yankees as Teixeira, Rodriguez, and to a lesser extent Brian McCann, struggled in the middle of the lineup. Taking into account Teixeira and Rodriguez are no longer on the squad, in my opinion, Bird becomes the most important position player next season.
After a full season away from the game, Bird, who will be 24 at the start of the 2017 season, will have immense pressure placed on his shoulders as the Yankees continue their transition from an aging roster to one becoming infused with players under 27 years old. The Yankees have a multitude of important players, but in my view, Bird tops the list. My reasoning is two-fold.
First, Bird will be expected to be a run-producer in the middle of the Yankees lineup. The Yankees 3-4-5 hitters from the outset of the 2015 season (Carlos Beltran, Teixeira and Rodriguez) are no longer with the club. The Yankees currently maintain two middle of the order bats in McCann and Gary Sanchez, with the former potentially on the trade block this offseason. The remainder of the Yankees regular position players do not resemble prototypical middle of the lineup batters. Without Bird's on-base prowess, his power stroke and capacity to drive in runs, the Yankees will once again lay at the bottom of the rankings in runs scored across the league.
Secondly, Bird partially represents the transition based on a reliance on home-grown prospects to become the core of the Yankees roster. If Bird fails, the Yankees have limited long-term backup plans to fall back on. In the short term, Tyler Austin could take some time at first base, but I have a feeling he will be a part of the outfield answer or traded. If the Yankees keep McCann, he will most certainly handle the designated hitter role and Sanchez's backup behind the plate. Shifting either Austin or McCann to first base full-time would put a dent in other areas of the club's structure, and the chances that they are not in New York next season are real.
However, should Bird succeed, the Yankees and their fans can point to his success, along with Sanchez's from 2016, as confirmation that they are handling their roster construction appropriately. If Bird is successful in 2017, it will allow the Yankees to maintain their focus on building a club from within and provides the team with the ability to lay off costly players to fill a typically expensive role.
I believe Bird has the ability to be a strong component of the Yankees middle of the order lineup based on extremely consistent production in his professional career. If we extrapolate Bird's results from 2015 to 600 plate appearances, he would generate 30 doubles, 37 home runs and drive in 104 runs. Bird's .871 OPS in 2015 was on par with his .878 OPS he managed across just under 1,800 minor league plate appearances, suggesting this type of offensive production is surely reasonable for the Yankees to expect as they build their roster.
Bird is currently participating in the Arizona Fall League in an effort to receive reps at the plate. He has yet to play first base, but the intention is to have Bird play at the position before the league's season comes to an end. Entering Wednesday's AFL play, Bird's OPS sits at .814 with six extra-base hits (one home run) and eight RBIs in 53 plate appearances. Provided Bird makes it through the AFL season without suffering any setbacks, the Yankees should feel some comfort as they head toward spring training.
Bird has exhibited upside and consistency as he climbed the organization's ladder, while not missing a beat as he received his call-up in 2015. Despite missing the 2016 season, it is my view that Bird will enter spring training as the most important position player on the club. Without Bird producing to the level we have seen thus far, the Yankees offense becomes run of the mill for the second straight season, and future roster decisions could become muddled.