The Yankees enter the 2018 season with their first baseman set in stone, but will Greg Bird's body hold up long enough to reach his full potential?
Bird was anointed the starting first baseman last season, courtesy of his pedigree and a blistering spring training. But he fouled a ball off his right ankle just before camp broke. The injury seemed minor at the time, except the pain lingered. By the time doctors finally figured out Bird should have the os trigonum removed from his ankle, he had suffered through four and a half months of pain, three and a half of which was spent on the disabled list.
While it was admirable of Bird to battle to stay on the field in April (and one day in May), his performance was simply dreadful. Across his first 60 at-bats in 2017, he logged just six hits. Not only was Bird making outs, he was not creating any hard hit balls (save a three-hit game, which included a home run). When Bird landed on the disabled list, the Yankees were not entirely confident that he would be able to return before the season concluded.
Even though his ankle injury was somewhat fluky, he began to receive comparisons to others among the Yankees lineage where it related to talented yet injury-riddled players because the latest malady followed his absence from the entire 2016 season due to a shoulder injury. The chatter went beyond the fans when a Yankees executive came forward as an anonymous source proclaiming that Bird was not being truthful about the pain, and suggested the first baseman didn't want to play.
Bird, who continuously vowed to return before the season ended, worked hard during his rehab process to defeat that commentary and managed to get onto the field by the end of August. Despite the Yankees finally receiving decent play from a first baseman when Chase Headley transitioned from third base, Bird was rightly thrust back into the role.
He reminded doubters why he will continue to receive plenty of rope to prove he can man first base for the foreseeable future. In 98 plate appearances, Bird launched nine home runs, hitting .253 with a .316 on-base percentage, and a .575 slugging percentage. He drove in 25 runs during the 29-game span. Bird kicked his production up a notch during the Yankees surprising postseason run, posting a .934 OPS in the playoffs (54 plate appearances), which included three homers and six RBIs.
Bird's late season performance in 2017 harkened memories of his 2015 debut when he filled in for an injured Mark Teixeira. Bird drilled 11 home runs and drove in 31 runs, while putting together a 135 OPS+ in 178 plate appearances.
He has now generated two, extremely strong stretches of play which have Yankees fans dreaming of monster full-season production. Bird has 30-home run potential, especially considering the short porch in Yankee Stadium's right field. He has a strong batting eye, which leads me to believe he has the ability to increase his on-base percentage into the .350 area despite coming in below that thus far (career .316 OBP in MLB, but .397 OBP in the minors).
Bird can hit in the .260/.270 range and will rack up strikeouts, but his ability to drive the ball could get his slugging percentage into the .500+ range (.479 thus far in MLB). In my opinion, Bird profiles to eventually earn himself the Yankees' No. 3 slot in the batting order where he can sit between Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton in the heart of the Yankees lineup.
Bird is an average defensive first baseman (one error in over 700 MLB innings in the field). He's not exactly flashy or rangy, but he gets the job done (-1 mark in defensive runs saved in 2017).
At 25, Bird is positioned to make his mark in the game. However, we have believed this before with Bird, so some trepidation is reasonable. As such, it will be interesting to see how the Yankees handle backup duties at first base.
The Yankees continue to support Tyler Austin, and at 26 years old, he seems to be in "last chance" mode. As the roster is currently constituted, Austin makes the most sense as a right-handed hitting complement to Bird.
One out of the box option was recently suggested to me. The Yankees have a glut of outfielders with Judge and Stanton seemingly set to split time in right field and at DH. It would be interesting to see if either or both receive some reps at first base in spring training, even if for emergency purposes. The notion might be dismissed as nonsense by some, but if the entire outfield crew is healthy and Bird needs a spell here and there placing either Judge or Stanton - both athletically gifted players - at first base is not so crazy.
Bird's production potential is clear, but his true value is only realized if delivered across a full season. In the end, the Yankees hope that Bird is in the lineup for 145-150 games in 2018. If he accomplishes that feat it would demonstrate he has the durability necessary to cement his spot on the roster as another member of a young core set to grow together through their prime seasons.