Greg Bird burst onto the scene in August 2015, filling in for an injured Mark Teixeira at first base. Bird hit .261 with 11 home runs, 31 runs batted in, and 26 runs scored in 46 games to finish the season. He produced a .343 on-base percentage, .529 slugging average, and .871 OPS in 178 plate appearances. He made a great impression with his bat and his glove, helping the Yankees earn a Wild Card berth. Originally slated to replace Teixeira at first base heading into the 2017 season, Bird was ahead of schedule.
Unfortunately, Bird's progress was halted when a shoulder injury required surgery and he missed the entire 2016 season. He recovered in time to play in the Arizona Fall League, and he absolutely mashed in spring training this year. An early-season slump and ankle injury that has failed to heal on schedule have caused some to question whether Bird will ever be a productive member of the Yankees again. His desire and commitment have even been questioned.
I'm no doctor, but I do know that the human body—even one belonging to a professional athlete—doesn't always respond the way we would like it to. We'll never know to what extent the ankle problem contributed to Bird's slump, or how attempting to play through the injury may have aggravated it.
Despite the frustrating setbacks that the young first baseman has experienced, I believe it's way too premature to proclaim an end to the Greg Bird era in New York. We'll never know what Bird's ceiling is until he's given a chance to heal properly and come back from the injury. Brian Cashman once proclaimed Greg Bird the best hitter in the Yankees organization. You simply don't give up on that kind of talent over what could prove to be a temporary setback.
Joe DiMaggio suffered a serious injury while playing in the Pacific Coast League in 1934. The Yankees were poised to sign him, but decided against it because of the injury. Thankfully, the gentleman who had been scouting him was relentless and eventually talked the Yankee decision makers into changing their minds. The injury never recurred and the rest, as they say, is baseball history.
Mickey Mantle suffered a serious knee injury early in his career, was hobbled by it throughout, and ultimately ended his playing days because of it. That didn't stop him from hitting 536 home runs, winning a Triple Crown and three MVP Awards, and leading the Yankees to 13 American League pennants and seven World Series championships during his 18-year career.
Can you imagine the Yankees brass giving up on Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle before they even had a chance to play and prove themselves? Can you imagine New York Yankees history without The Mick or Joltin' Joe?
I'm not comparing Greg Bird to Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle, and I'm not predicting that he will have the type of career that either of those legends had. Bird has tremendous upside, and we need to be patient while he recovers. We need to be doubly patient when he finally returns and allow him significant playing time to prove himself. Greg Bird is still the Yankees’ first baseman of the future, and we should act accordingly.
So what do the Yankees do about first base in the meantime? That question has been answered over the last couple of weeks. The team ended the Chris Carter experiment by giving him his unconditional release, they promoted left-handed hitting first baseman Ji-Man Choi from Triple-A, and they acquired right-handed hitting first-base prospect Garrett Cooper in a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers.
We will likely see Choi and Cooper in some form of a first-base platoon, with the righty possibly getting more playing time. Cooper hit .366 with 17 home runs, 29 doubles, 82 runs batted in, and 64 runs scored in 75 games at Triple-A this season. He had a .428 on-base percentage, .652 slugging average, and 1.080 OPS in 320 plate appearances.
There was speculation that the Yankees might give up a boatload of prospects to get one of the established first basemen who were rumored to be available on the trade market. I'm glad the team hasn’t gone that route. I really like the Cooper trade, where Cashman traded one big league-ready prospect to acquire another. I like watching young players trying to make their mark. Who knows, the Yankees might catch lightning in a bottle with either Cooper or Choi while waiting for Bird's return. Tyler Austin should also be healthy soon. With Yankee first basemen posting the second worst OPS (.624) in the majors this year, the only way is up.
What do you think the Yankees should do about first base? Sound off in the comments below.