Greg Bird’s MLB story feels a lot like Charlie Brown’s kicking career. Ever since his tantalizing finish to the 2015 season, we’ve expected him to lock down the first base position in the lineup. Even though injuries wiped out all of 2016 and most of last year, We still let Lucy tee up the football for us this spring. As we approach the kickoff of the regular season, Lucy pulls the ball back yet again.
Bird’s right foot-the same foot that cost him most of last year- is mysteriously inflamed. In retrospect, the Yankees should’ve prepared for this as an inevitability. While it must be incredibly frustrating for Bird himself, the team just can’t rely on him to play 150+ games in the field. They haven’t announced yet whether or not he’ll start the season on the DL. Even if he returns to action in time for Opening Day, there’s at least a reasonable chance he’ll miss time at some point during the season. Should that happen, here’s where the Yankees will turn for a first baseman, in order of likelihood.
Other than Bird, there will probably be only four players on the 25 man roster with any first base experience whatsoever. Brandon Drury played one inning at the position in 2013, and Gary Sanchez spent three innings there last year. Both have starting jobs elsewhere and almost certainly won’t be moved to first. Austin Romine barely hits enough to keep his job as a backup catcher, so even though he’s played 20 games at first base, he’s unpalatable as a long-term option. That leaves the most recent Yankee acquisition: Neil Walker
Walker is a 9-year MLB veteran who played second base almost exclusively from 2009-2016. His calling card is offense, and he brings a career 114 wRC+ into this season. He’s never been particularly adept at his natural position, posting -16 DRS and -23.5 UZR for his career. At age 32, he’s more likely to regress than progress, and frankly, he can’t afford to lose any range and stay up the middle. Last year, while playing for the Mets and Brewers, he was asked to spend some time at first base as well as third. Transitioning to the corners may be the key to extending his career into his mid-30s.
There’s another reason why Walker is the best backup first base candidate: Tyler Wade. Improbably, Wade beat out top prospects Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar for a spot on the major league roster when the Yankees break camp. The fleet middle infielder impressed the coaching staff with his superior speed and defense. He’s no slouch at the plate either, batting .310/.382/.460 in AAA last year and has a .404 OBP in Spring Training. Manager Aaron Boone already announced plans to use Wade concurrently with Walker at second base, so if the latter moves over to first, there’s an in-house replacement at second.
Remember when Tyler Austin was a top prospect? Along with Mason Williams and Slade Heathcott, the Yankee outfield of the future never really materialized. Of the three former can’t-miss stars, Austin has the brightest future remaining. After moving to first base, he finally conquered the high minors in 2016, only to get hurt for most of last season (along with everyone else on the first base depth chart).
At age 26, Austin has nothing left to prove in the minors. He hasn’t hit much in the big leagues so far- just .236/.294/.447 through 136 PA, but the power is real. He’s crushed 4 HR and 2 2B this spring, so his bat looks pretty hot at the moment. If the Yankees aren’t comfortable with Walker at first base, or if Wade fails to hit, Austin will get the first call from the minors (assuming he doesn’t make the team out of Spring Training).
What if the third baseman of the future isn’t a third baseman? Miguel Andujar posted a .850 OPS in AA and AAA last year and shot up the prospect charts this offseason. He followed that up with 7 XBH this spring. No one questions his ability to hit, nor the major league readiness of his bat. The Yankees even felt comfortable enough with him that they traded away Chase Headley before they had other third base alternatives (they’ve since added Drury and Walker, of course).
Most of the time, when a team sends a player down to “work on his defense,” it’s a euphemism for “we’re playing games with his service time.” (See Acuna, Ronald.) However, in the case of Andujar, they might be telling the truth. According to Jarrett Seidler in the Yankees BP Prospect Rankings, “The plus arm strength plays down because it isn’t paired with stellar accuracy. His hands aren’t great, and he doesn’t always make the best of choices on how to play the ball at third, which has led the Yankees to talk about exposing him to other positions, most likely first base.”
It’s too soon to give up on Andujar at the hot corner, so the Yankees aren’t likely to move him to first just yet. However, if Bird misses significant time again and can no longer be trusted with a starting job, Andujar’s future might be at the cold corner instead.
The Yankees have two more imperfect options to fill a first base void. There’s Billy McKinney, who is on the 40 man roster but not really a first baseman. There’s also recent Rule V Draft returnee Mike Ford, who is not on the 40 man roster but is a real first baseman. Both showed the ability hit for some power and drew a few walks in the minors as well as Spring Training (though Ford was at the Mariners’ camp). Neither are exciting options at the moment, but if they get hot in the minor leagues, you never know what can happen.
In the event of a significant injury to Bird, perhaps the most likely outcome of all is that the Yankees go outside the organization. GM Brian Cashman still has some room under the $197 million luxury tax threshold as well as an overstocked farm system. Rather than suffer a war of attrition at first base for the second year in a row (third if you count Mark Teixeira’s final season), look for a major acquisition if things get desperate.
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