Greg Bird or Nick Johnson?
When Greg Bird was pulled just before first pitch in the penultimate game of Spring Training, there were rumblings throughout the Evil Empire. Those rumblings, which concerned the frequency of bizarre injuries and afflictions that have prevented Greg Bird from taking flight, wondered whether Bird was the next Nick Johnson, a former Yankee first baseman who had a promising start to his career, which ultimately was derailed by a series of hard luck injuries.
Now, those rumblings have risen to a cacophony of irritation and concern as the Yankees announced Bird will miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season as he will undergo surgery to remove a bone spur from the same right ankle that had undergone a procedure the year before that saw him play in 48 games.
If Bird makes a speedy recovery, there is still plenty of time for him to make an impact in the 2018 season. It's the games in the dog days of July and August that really matter, when each game seems to have more meaning than the last.
But that's the future, and the Yankees need to deal with the present.
Seeking an immediate replacement
In the waking hours of Bird's injury, it seems as if the Yankees will fill the void internally.
Neil Walker, who was signed late in the offseason, will have to display his versatility as it is expected he will be the emergency plug at first base. Primarily a second baseman, Walker has the experience to shift over to a position that has been manned by the likes of Tino Martinez, Don Mattingly, and Mark Teixeira.
There is also Tyler Austin, who was expected to begin the season at Triple-A with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders but will fill a roster spot on Opening Day in the wake of Bird's injury. Austin, who has flashed power potential in 53 big league games, stated his readiness to fill in for Bird if a serious injury was revealed, but plugging in another right-handed bat that adheres to the three true outcomes of baseball—home run, strikeout, or walk—does not have the same dynamic if Bird was in the lineup.
Miguel Andujar, who scouts believe is ready to hit big league pitching but is blocked from the big league roster by Brandon Drury at third base, will take reps at first while in Scranton. Still, the Yankees still think highly of Andujar as a major league third baseman and they will limit Andujar's exposure at first to only 20 percent of his starts.
Options outside of the organization include Adam Lind, who was released by the Yankees after a brief two-week audition under a minor league contract, and Mark Reynolds, who toils away in free agent limbo and hit six homers in 36 games for the Yankees in 2013. While both provide the experience and past success to man the position, the budget-minded Yankees appear to have no interest in bringing either back.
Is Bird still the word?
It will be a tough question for the Yankees to answer.
Bird's potential is undeniable. His home run off Andrew Miller as the Yankees staved off elimination in Game 3 of last year's ALDS remains the biggest Yankee home run in the last decade.
But it's been a hard going for Bird in the beginning of his career what with the shoulder surgery that sidelined him all of 2016, the ankle surgery in 2017 that limited him to 48 games, and now a second surgery. He's still in his prime years at age 25 and perhaps this will be the last roadblock in what could be a solid career, but there's still a lot for Bird to prove.
Yankee fans have yet to see the damage Bird can do over the course of a full 162 game schedule. The tantalizing fantasy of a sweet-swinging left-handed hitter betwixt Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will not become a reality until perhaps June. At Yankee Stadium, the possibility of a 30 home run season was not out of the question.
This is not a lost season for Bird. It's only a matter of lost time. When he returns in June, he can still provide much-valued run support as the Yankees gear up for the final stretch towards the playoffs. That would not be dissimilar from his role in 2017, and his performance in October, with a .241 batting average and three home runs, was crucial as they made it to Game 7 of the ALCS.
But it shouldn't be lost on Yankees fans that there hasn't been a home-grown talent at first base since Don Mattingly. In 2001 there was Nick Johnson, another lefty first baseman who had the propensity for line drives in the power alleys and getting on base, but his three years as a Yankee were marred by a consistent string of injuries that only disappointed the high expectations heaped upon him.
That's not to say Bird is Nick Johnson 2.0. The former has proven to be a far more athletic and dynamic player than Johnson ever was, but the parallels are eerie.
And that's more than enough to cause panic throughout the Bronx.