FORT MYERS, Fla. – In the words of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, Luke Voit entered spring training with a “leg up” on Greg Bird in the competition for the starting spot at first base.
Bird didn’t waste any time Saturday trying to close that gap.
Having already impressed some in the organization with his work in the cage the last couple of weeks, he doubled in his first at-bat of spring training. The lefthanded-hitting Bird lined a rope off the leftfield wall on a 2-and-2 fastball from righthander Josh Smith in the first inning of the Yankees’ 8-5 loss to the Red Sox in front of 9,884 at JetBlue Park.
With much of the Yankees’ decision-making hierarchy on hand – including Cashman, vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring, director of pro scouting Dan Giese and assistant director of pro scouting (and Long Island native) Matt Daley – Bird ripped a line-drive single to right on a 1-and-2 pitch from righty Marcus Walden in his second at-bat and finished 2-for-2.
Voit, who did not make the trip, will get his first crack in the competition on Sunday in Port Charlotte against the Rays. The righthanded-hitting Voit, of course, dislodged the struggling Bird from first base late last season and hit 14 homers in 114 at-bats after taking over starting duties Aug. 24. He drove in 31 runs in 32 games and compiled a .351/.426/.763 slash line in that span.
“It’s a game, so you’re always competing. That’s the biggest thing, you’re always being competitive,” Bird said after coming out of Saturday’s game. “And I like it that way. I’m competitive. So you have to bring your ‘A’ game, and that’s the way it should be.”
Manager Aaron Boone has indicated that the loser of the competition likely is headed to the minor leagues. Will the winner be the player who hits the most? Boone said that in his eyes, “I don’t think it’s that simple.”
He added, “We’re a long way between now and the end of March. Luke Voit has earned the right to be that guy, but as I’ve said all along, I believe Greg Bird can be an impact player. And I’ve never lost sight of that, even at his lowest points last year. We’ll see how it unfolds.”
Bird looked terrific after being called up to the big leagues in August 2015 but missed all of 2016 recovering from shoulder surgery. He was limited to 48 games in 2017 because of a bone bruise in his right ankle and had the start of his 2018 season delayed because of another surgery on his right foot.
There were no physical limitations on his work during this offseason, though. The 6-4 Bird arrived in camp having added about 20 pounds and now weighs 230– a more muscular player who’s more than ready to go.
“Really happy,” Bird said Saturday. “Just being out there, getting the legs under me again. First game’s always something [special], so it’s nice. I felt smooth and easy. I didn’t feel like I was trying to do too much and I didn’t feel like I had. I just felt like I took my swing, and that’s what I want.”
Like Bird, the 6-3, 225-pound Voit showed up for camp early, very much in shape and just as motivated. While pretty much everyone, Boone included, acknowledges that Bird is the better defender, Voit -- though built like a linebacker -- has made strides on defense, Boone said.
“One thing Luke does really well, like a lot of our guys, he controls the strike zone,” he said. “He doesn’t leave the strike zone much and he has the ability to hit the ball with authority the other way, which obviously plays in a big-time way in our park. It’s impossible denying the impact he had [last season], but also how consistent he was the final couple of months and when we had some key guys out. A lot of his damage was done when [Aaron] Judge was down, when Didi [Gregorius] was down. He’s earned a strong place coming into this camp.”