The Yankees knew at the outset of the 2016 season that they would be without Mark Teixeira in 2017, but they might not have believed they would conduct a spring training competition to determine his successor. Here's a look at the candidates...
How they fared in 2016:
One of the disappointments for the 2016 Yankees was the absence of Greg Bird from the roster. Bird burst onto the scene in 2015 when Teixeira went down with a broken bone in his leg. Teixeira was in the throes of a comeback season and one of the reasons the Yankees were in line for a playoff berth.
Bird made everyone forget about Teixeira's absence by hitting 11 home runs and driving in 31 runs across just 178 plate appearances. He seemingly alleviated any concern the club had for the future at the position with Teixeira's contract coming to an end following the 2016 campaign.
Unfortunately, Bird required season-ending surgery for a torn right labrum in February before the team descended into Tampa for Spring Training. While it was not anticipated that the left-handed hitting Bird would take over for Teixeira, it was believed he would get plenty of reps in an effort to rest the veteran and fully acclimate to the big leagues.
Instead, Bird's first taste of 2016 game action came in the Arizona Fall League. Bird was understandably rusty, hitting .215 with a .346 OBP and a .354 SLG. Of mild concern is that Bird never played a game in the field in Arizona, so his first live game at first base since 2015 will come this spring.
Due in part to Bird missing a whole season, the 24-year-old will be fighting for the full-time role against Tyler Austin. The right-handed hitting Austin was among the call-ups after the Yankees' sell-off last season. Austin's climb to the big leagues has been somewhat of a roller coaster.
Austin, 25, was once a top prospect in the organization and the game, rated No. 77 and No. 75 by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline in 2013 preseason polls. He subsequently suffered through some injuries which effectively set back his growth. He came into last season having to prove himself once again at Double-A Trenton.
Austin was solid, generating a .762 OPS in 210 plate appearances, which was enough to earn a promotion to Triple-A. He outperformed his Double-A stats at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre by far, slashing .323/.415/.637 with 24 doubles and 13 home runs in 234 plate appearances. The impressive results basically forced the Yankees to call him up when the need presented itself.
Austin is versatile in that he can also play the outfield (he has played mostly right field in his minor league career). In 2016, he played first base as his primary position for the first time in his pro career, including 20 starts for the Yankees as Teixeira was shifted to part-time duty. Austin posted a .758 OPS with five home runs in 90 plate appearances for the Yankees, showing impressive raw power to the opposite field.
What to expect in 2017
This battle should be quite interesting and might last the entire season. While I believe Bird is the better long-term solution at first base, his progress in 2017 could be slow -- especially in the power department as his shoulder regains strength.
Austin's bat is not necessarily an issue, but he must work harder on his defense at the position simply because he doesn't have the number of reps Bird does.
There is a chance one of the two players runs away with the job, but it seems more likely that this could turn into a platoon situation early on with Bird having the best chance of taking control of the job as the season wears on.
Austin's ability to play some in the outfield will surely come into play, and having Bird at first more often because he hits left-handed will be important and provide some defensive stability.
As such, if Bird can accumulate 500 plate appearances as the primary first baseman I believe a .265/.360/.440 slash line with 15-20 home runs and 70 RBIs are reasonable expectations. These are not exactly mind-shattering numbers, but they resemble his last couple of seasons in the minors and well beyond anything Teixeira provided in 2016. There is significant upside in Bird's potential in the slugging department, but I am hesitant to assume he will reach his 2015 slugging percentage with the Yankees (.529) in the first year back from shoulder surgery.
As for Austin, if he was to garner 250 plate appearances, he could provide better than average numbers in the role. A .260 average with a .340 OBP and .450 SLG is not out of the question. Austin could pop 25 extra-base hits in the stated plate appearances and become a valuable part-time player for the Yankees. Austin's counting stats could jump significantly if he was to receive more playing time due to injuries or poor performance of others on the roster.
In my view and assuming health is not an issue, the Yankees would be wise to have both players play as often as possible in 2017.
Bird projects as the first baseman of the future, and Austin, if he can continue to build off his 2016 season, could become a valuable multi-position player. Minimally, if the duo combines for 750 or more plate appearances, they could certainly help the team become a better offensive club in 2017.