Spring training competition: Can Tyler Austin win the starting first baseman job?

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.

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.


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1 comment on “Spring training competition: Can Tyler Austin win the starting first baseman job?”


When speaking to Austin, I sometimes think I must have been watching a different Tyler Austin than most baseball writers. As much as I would like to see Austin succeed, I look at his footwork around 1B, and although he did improve, he looks to be a defensive liability. His inability to pick throws in the dirt from 3B and SS will be a strong deterrent to his earning the 1B job. The worst of it, imo, is that he has an extremely closed stance at the plate. When closed to that extreme, he makes himself an automatic out with pitches in, that can get under his hands. Even if he can get out in front of the pitch, as the ball rides in, he can’t see it. There were times when he seemed to adjust, not quite so closed, when he actually made solid contact. But, he also lost the ability to go to the opposite field when making the adjustment. Although he does handle the ball up and away fairly well, driving it to right center, he’s only gonna see the ball down and away, and in, under his hands. I don’t see him as being successful, as long as he uses this approach at the plate. Austin seems to have a long way to go on both sides of the field, at this point. With no one in the pipeline at 1B, and with the release of Parmelee, the Yankees would be wise to sign a veteran at 1B. Logan Morrison would be a pretty good fit. He’s an excellent defensive 1B, and if healthy, he’s got the Yankee Stadium stroke. At least that would give Austin time to work on his game at Scranton.

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