With two home runs against the Twins on Wednesday, the first homers in what proclaims to be a bright MLB career, New York Yankees first-base prospect Greg Bird has officially broken out in the Bronx. But where does he ultimately fit?
By Bryan Pol
Like Ruth’s “Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs, everyone knows the story from the annals of Yankee lore that redefined a corner infield position for the Bronx Bombers in 1925, two years after Yankee Stadium opened its gates for the cathedral’s first World Series championship.
Wally Pipp, one of the best power hitters of the game’s Dead Ball era, was entrenched as the Yankees’ first baseman for an eleven year span that promptly ended on June 15, 1923, when a young 22 year old Yorkville, Manhattan product by the name of Lou Gehrig came in to pinch hit, and later went on to play 2,130 consecutive games, becoming the Iron Horse and The Pride of the Yankees.
Reportedly, according to a 1939 New York World-Telegram feature on Gehrig’s time with New York, Pipp came to Yankee Stadium that day, complaining of an aggravating headache, and promptly asked the Yankee trainer for two aspirin to alleviate the pain. New York Yankees manager Miller Huggins, taking notice of the exchange, told Pipp, “Wally, take the day off. We’ll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow.” Pipp, interviewed for the piece, was later quoted as remarking, “I took the two most expensive aspirin in history.”
Gehrig would go on to become the greatest first baseman in Yankee, if not baseball, history, while Pipp was relegated to the bench, struck in the head and hospitalized by an errant Charlie Caldwell pitch during batting practice on July 2, put on waivers in the offseason, and eventually acquired by the Cincinnati Reds.
In 2015, as Yankee great Yogi Berra once quoth, “It’s deja vu all over again.”
In the sixth inning of Monday night’s game against the Twins, hot-hitting first baseman Mark Teixeira, one of the key reasons why New York has maintained a lead in the American League East this late in the season, fouled a ball off his leg and was subsequently removed from the lineup in favor of 22 year old Greg Bird, recently called up to fill a roster spot vacated by Garrett Jones, designated for assignment when the Yankees acquired Dustin Ackley, who is currently on the disabled list with a right lumbar strain.
X-rays of Teixeira’s leg after the game were negative, and the organization ruled it a contusion, but The New York Post hinted at a possible DL stint in light of the deep bruise not healing as it should.
Regardless of Teixeira’s status, Bird has made the most of his time in pinstripes.
On Monday, three innings after being inserted into the game with Teixeira out, Bird lead off the tenth inning with a double and the game tied 7-7. Two batters later, the bases were loaded with no outs, and third baseman Chase Headley hit a routine ground ball that Twins’ shortstop Eduardo Nunez, the former Yankee whose line drive earlier sent pitcher Bryan Mitchell to the hospital with a nasal fracture, bobbled, leading to Bird crossing the plate for the game’s winning run.
On Wednesday, making his fourth start in the majors at first base, Bird, in the fourth inning, took an Ervin Santana 0-1 changeup deep into the second deck for his first major league home run, putting the Yankees up 2-0, with Carlos Beltran scoring.
In the sixth, the Twins would answer with three runs of their own off a Joe Mauer two-run single and a Trevor Plouffe RBI infield single.
Bird came to the plate again in the bottom of the sixth, with Beltran already on in light of a two-out walk, and he struck another home run, his second of the day, this time, to right-center in the Yankee bullpen, just ahead of the 385 ft. sign. The dinger put the Yankees up 4-3, a lead they would not relinquish when Dellin Betances came in to earn his eighth save of the season. Betances, notching his 100th strikeout of the year against Plouffe, became the fifth Yankee pitcher to match or better that feat, making New York the first team in baseball to have five such players reach triple digits in Ks.
With Teixeira likely out for extended time, manager Joe Girardi will most certainly continue going to the young slugger from Aurora, Colorado, but upon Teixeira’s eventual return, what will be done with Gregory Bird?
Alex Rodriguez, whose seventh inning grand slam, the 25th of his career, essentially won the game Tuesday night for the Yankees 8-4, is a mainstay at designated hitter in light of the monstrous season he is having. With DH already taken, especially on nights when Beltran can spell A-Rod when he is not in right field, Bird could potentially play in the outfield, as Don Mattingly did in left and right field for chunks of the 1982 and 1983 seasons, but those positions are currently manned by Brett Gardner, enjoying another solid and consistent campaign, and the aforementioned Beltran.
With Teixeira on the payroll until 2016, and A-Rod on the books until 2017, the designated hitter slot and first base are already consumed for the next two seasons, and although Gardner could move to center to allow Bird to play left field, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury has a contract through 2020 with a club option for 2021. Bird could even move to right field, but alas, Beltran remains with the Yankees under contract until the end of 2016.
That pits Bird at first base at 2017 at the earliest, when he can start Opening Day at a ripe age of 24, but as actor Karl Urban quipped as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in 2009’s Star Trek, “If you’re gonna ride in the Kentucky Derby, you don’t leave your prize stallion in the stable,” a line spoken in reference to Spock exiling James Kirk from the U.S.S. Enterprise.
In 2015 and 2016, Bird is that proverbial prize stallion in the stable, waiting for his chance to feature in a Yankee lineup desperate to enter the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, an Ice Age in the grand scheme of the Yankees’ postseason ledger.
While having a bevy of options is not necessarily bad, such surplus is depriving Bird and future right fielder Aaron Judge of their time in pinstripes, with the latter set to turn 24 at the start of the 2016 season, when Carlos Beltran will still be a Yankee.
To general manager Brian Cashman’s credit, he passed on extending Robinson Cano’s contract, a deal that is currently torpedoing the Seattle Mariners’ season in only its second year, which will do its part to keep the Yankees below $189 million, just under the luxury tax threshold. Because of the wild spending of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Yankees no longer tout the game’s largest payroll, and with many huge contracts coming off the books in the near future (including Teixeira, A-Rod, and CC Sabathia’s), the Yankees will drop even more payroll, which would place them below the likes of the Boston Red Sox, and perhaps even the Detroit Tigers, depending on whether or not they re-sign Yoenis Cespedes and David Price in free agency.
The Yankees could have acquired Price, Johnny Cueto, and Cole Hamels at the non-waiver trade deadline, but knowing hurler Luis Severino would soon be on the rise, Cashman held onto chips like Bird, Judge, Severino, and shortstop Jorge Mateo, and now, in light of cutting payroll, seeing big contract players like A-Rod and Teixeira resuscitate their careers, and watching the likes of Ellsbury and catcher Brian McCann playing up to the value of the large contracts they inked, New York have put themselves in prime position to win the American League East this season and compete well beyond next year.
The only problem is, Joe Girardi is forced to prove himself as manager, perhaps more so than ever before, in juggling options to find Greg Bird a spot in the lineup as soon as possible in order to maximize the Yankee offense.
Never mind how Girardi will manage a taxed bullpen and his rotation once Michael Pineda returns from the DL and Severino perpetuates his onslaught of high-velocity fastballs.
In short, the Yankees cannot simply demote Bird and Severino if they continue their stellar play. Barring a catastrophic injury to Teixeira or A-Rod, Bird may find himself on the outside, looking desperately in, perhaps in a matter of days.
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