Originally published on Mattingly’s Sideburns.

 

February is a time for baseball optimism. The heavy-lifting of the offseason is over. Free agents have found a home for the upcoming season. Pitchers and catchers are just days away from reporting to camp, and sunny spring training games will be soon to follow. February is a time when fans can dream on their teams. Normally I’d make some kind of smartass remark here, like “Unless you’re a Phillies fan! ZING!” If I had written this piece last year though, I might have made that comment about the Astros or Twins and proceeded to look all kinds of stupid. So I won’t.

So yeah, even Phillies fans can dream in February. If it’s not about their place in the standings, maybe it’s about Aaron Nola. Or Maikel Franco. Or 2016 being the Ryan Howard sayonara-tour. Point is, all fans have something to get excited about this time of year.

Greg Bird was one of the things I was most excited about this February.

 

Bird was fantastic upon getting called up to the majors last August. The 22-year-old managed one of the best AB/HR rates in history for a rookie by smacking 11 homers in his first 157 at-bats. He showed incredible patience for his age, posting a 10.7% walk rate and flashed an ability to hit to all fields. When the Yankees’ most productive hitter went down with injury, Bird stepped into his shoes and helped carry the Yankees to their first postseason berth in three years. For some context, here is a list of all the first basemen in history who managed a better single-season OPS+ than Bird at his age or younger.

Here’s the same list after stripping out pre-integration era players.

We’re talking about just 178 plate appearances here, so I’m not trying to make any grand proclamations about Bird’s future. The torrid start to his career is still more descriptive than predictive at this point. Still, his 2016 projection reflects the idea that his rookie year wasn’t a total fluke. Steamer had him projected for a .265/.338/.483 batting line in his age-23 season, about 23% better than average. Extrapolated over 600 plate appearances, that would give him 28 homers and make him worth more than 2 wins, even despite the bad defense.

Unfortunately he will be worth exactly nothing in 2016 after news recently broke that he’ll miss the entire season with a torn shoulder labrum. Sigh.

Your opinion of how much the Bird injury affects the 2016 Yankees probably depends on what your opinion of the Yankees was in the first place. As it was, Bird was likely going to begin the year in the minors, blocked at the major league level by Mark Teixeira at first base and Alex Rodriguez at DH. If you think Teixeira and A-Rod will stay mostly healthy and productive in 2016, then there probably wasn’t going to be much need for Bird on the major league roster anyway. In this scenario, the 2016 Yankees aren’t really affected.

If you’re more of a pragmatist though, you note that Teixeira is 36-years-old and hasn’t played more than 123 games in a season since 2011. A-Rod is 40 and has only reached that milestone once since Teixeira last did…his completely unexpected renaissance last year. Even then, he seemed to wear down as the season moved along and probably would have been better off had he sat out all of August entirely. Bird was the hedge against one of those guys being injured or ineffective. With him gone, it leaves the Yankees without the depth that might be necessary to keep an old, brittle team afloat throughout the course of a 162-game season.

Time will tell which of the two scenarios actually come to pass. At the very least though, Bird’s injury robs him of a development year and potentially threatens his status as New York’s heir-apparent at first base. With Teixeira’s contract set to expire after this season, the Yankees will have to decide whether they can trust Bird with a full-time job after a year’s absence or must scramble for a plan B. That, of course, is if his shoulder makes it back to full strength to begin with.

As for Yankee fans, they are robbed, even if just temporarily, of the kind of exciting young hitter that has become an increasingly rare sighting in the Bronx. Brett Gardner is the last Yankee farmhand to become an above average regular in the big leagues, but he mostly accomplished that with his glove and legs. You would have to go back to Robinson Cano to find someone who made a similar impact with his bat at Bird’s age, and that was a full decade ago.

Bird was one of the first in a wave of prospects that Yankee fans hope will change all that. Luis Severino made a similar impact for the team on the mound last year. Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are two more that are likely to arrive in 2016, Jorge Mateo after that. Together they project as the strongest class of Yankee prospects in 20 years. In a perfect world, Bird would make a full recovery and rejoin that group next spring. For now, I’m a little less optimistic this February.

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