When Mark Teixeira went down with a foot injury late last summer, it spelled a huge blow for the Yankees’ World Series hopes. Although they had received a tremendous effort from Alex Rodriguez through August and Carlos Beltran provided a steady stream of hits following his awful start, it was Teixeira’s slugging and ability to take walks and extend innings that propelled the offense into the league’s elite. Shockingly, Teixeira’s team-leading OPS+ of 147 would not be missed following the call-up of fellow slugger Greg Bird, who offered his own 138.
Scouts and projection systems alike seem to agree that Bird’s bat is major league ready, and could even be the best shot the Yankees have at a true lineup cornerstone. He was called up in 2015 after batting .300 at the Triple A level, and slugged above .500 in the majors with a fielding percentage of .998. Unfortunately, due to the value Rodriguez brings to the designated hitter position and Teixeira to the first base position, Bird seems poised to start his season in Scranton.
With little to prove on the field, except perhaps that his power numbers were not a fluke, Bird will find himself in a strange career position. With the knowledge that he’ll get another opportunity at the major league level soon, Bird should work on the intangible aspects of major league professionalism he glimpsed last year in the Bronx.
In recent history, the leaders of the Yankees have typically been prominent, from Don Mattingly to Derek Jeter. Upon Jeter’s retirement, Teixeira, A-Rod and CC Sabathia, the club’s three most prominent leftovers from the 2009 championship team, became the leaders in the clubhouse. Free agent additions such as Beltran and Brian McCannhave surely added leadership qualities that should not be underrated, and Brett Gardner has been around as long as nearly anybody.
However, looking at that list of names reveals not one player who can be reasonably expected to play for the Yankees in two or three seasons, perhaps save for McCann. Brian Cashman’s youth movement, which has brought in the likes of Starlin Castro, Didi Gregorius, and Nathan Eovaldi, has increased the need for clubhouse stalwarts who can be expected to set the tone for professionalism. Bird, who appears to be as prominent a part of future plans as any young Yankee, has the unique opportunity in 2016 to lead a talented team as its best player and most vocal leader.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders finished first in their division and third in the International League last season due in no small part to Bird’s contributions. With plenty of productive players returning as well as the expected jump in production from top prospect Aaron Judge, who should start the season in Triple-A, the RailRiders should be competitive even without Greg Bird. With Bird’s major league presence in his lineup, new Scranton manager Al Pedrique should have a great opportunity to improve on last year’s 81-63 record.
As disappointing as it may be for him to know he can contribute to the major league ball club, Greg Bird does not lack for opportunity in Scranton in 2016. By working on the less tangible aspects of the game such as game preparation and vocal leadership, he can improve his prognosis as a long-term major league prospect. With the knowledge he could be called up at anytime, Bird should over-prepare for his Triple-A competition and relish this opportunity to lead a team by example. After all, with the ages and contract positions of current Yankees clubhouse leaders, it may not be long before he is asked to do just that in the Bronx.