Heading into spring training, most people are assuming that Greg Bird will be the New York Yankees starting first baseman come Opening Day…except for one person: Tyler Austin.
Tyler Austin said he's not going into ST expecting to be sent back down to minors. "I'm going in there to be the everyday first baseman."
— Shane Hennigan (@RailRidersTT) January 28, 2017
Does Austin have a chance to surpass Bird on the depth chart? Probably not, but the Yankees are not going to simply hand Bird — who missed all of 2016 due to a torn labrum — the job. In fact, earlier this offseason Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters that he viewed competition positively, noting that it can serve as a motivator.
The last time Bird played in a major-league game was Oct. 6, 2015. When Bird did play that year he showed flashes of excellence, displaying why the Yankees viewed him as their first baseman of the future. In his first and only stint in the majors, Bird slashed .261/.343/.529 with 11 homers in 46 games. He also avoided the “over-eager rookie” phase, walking 19 times in 178 plate appearances. After his short stint in 2015, Bird was destined to play an integral role in 2016 before his shoulder injury ended his season before it even started.
To shake off the rust of missing the season, the Yankees sent Bird to the Arizona Fall League where he played in 17 games. On the surface, his .215/.346/.354 slash line is uninspiring, but one would expect Bird to struggle after missing an entire season. On a positive note, Bird continued to display his exceptional plate-discipline, walking 12 times in 78 plate appearances. Whether Bird can simply step onto the baseball field against major-league competition and return to form remains to be seen.
Austin, on the other hand, was somewhat of a forgotten commodity heading into the 2016 season. He started the year at Double-A Trenton, putting up average numbers that probably did not excite Yankee management. However, after a mid-season promotion to Triple-A, everything changed. Austin never looked back slashing a remarkable .323/.415/.637 with 13 HRs in 57 games. Those numbers were good enough to gain management’s attention and earn himself a promotion to the big leagues that seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year. He made the most of his opportunity in his major-league debut, hitting the first of back-t0-back homers with Aaron Judge, who also played his first game in the majors. It made for quite the moment in the Bronx.
Unsurprisingly, Austin cooled down a bit after his first AB, but finished 2016 with a respectable .241/.300/.458 slash to go along with 5 HRs in 31 games and also hit a walk-off home run to add to his big-league resume. He showed flashes of potential, but was it enough to make him a legitimate threat to steal Bird’s assumed starting role? Austin’s TAv was a league-average .261 in 2016 compared to Bird’s .312 TAv in a similar number of games in 2015. Austin also struck out an abysmal 36 times in just 90 plate appearances (40% k-rate), while walking only seven times. Additionally, his .357 BABIP indicates that he might have been a bit lucky last season, although he has a career BABIP above .300 throughout his minor-league career.
If I were a betting man, I would expect Bird to be the Yankees starting first baseman on April 2. That does not mean Austin has zero shot at winning the competition. He’s a competitor and he has shown the ability to handle big-league pitching. Either way, Austin should play a significant role in 2017, whether it be at first base spelling Bird a day here-and-there or elsewhere to get his bat into the lineup.