TAMPA, Fla. — The ball left Greg Bird’s bat with a loud crack, sailing over the wall in rightfield toward one of the active construction areas at Steinbrenner Field.
It was a homer off righthander Giovanny Gallegos, who is competing for a bullpen spot, during a simulated game early Monday morning, so the blast was nothing to get carried away about.
Still, for the 24-year-old Bird — who, barring something unforeseen, will be the Yankees’ Opening Day first baseman — it continued a process that began when he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder last February.
“I love hitting live,” Bird said. “Just the closer I get to a game-like scenario, the better it is for me. It just gets me locked in more than anything.”
Bird’s road back has been a deliberate one, and there will be questions about his shoulder until he gets deep into the grind of the regular season. Every hurdle so far, however, has been cleared. That started late last summer when he began baseball activities and progressed to DH appearances in the instructional league and in the Arizona Fall League, where he again only DH’d.
He is not limited in any way now and says his shoulder has never felt better. It bothered him in 2015 even as he created a stir by posting a .261/.343/.529 slash line with 11 homers in 157 at-bats after an early-August call-up.
“I feel good every day and I recover every day, so that’s big for me,” Bird said. “I feel better in a lot of ways, and I think that will get better as I get used to playing every day.”
The Yankees, led by managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman, said throughout the offseason that they expected Bird to be the starting first baseman, though Tyler Austin would compete for the job. Austin’s slim chance dissipated Friday when he was diagnosed with a fractured left foot.
Cashman signed slugger Chris Carter to a one-year, $3.5-million deal shortly before pitchers and catchers reported as insurance for Bird, who has taken the signing in stride.
“It’s exciting we got a big bat. He’s someone I can learn from,” Bird said of Carter, the National League’s co-leader in homers last year with 41. “I’m fighting to prove that I’m healthy and can play. I’m not fighting against anyone in particular. Just trying to play and play at a high level again.”
Bird was not alone in putting on an impressive display Monday. Aaron Judge ripped several balls, with the most memorable a shot into the right-centerfield gap against Bryan Mitchell.
For the Yankees to have the kind of season they want, Bird and Judge likely will have to be productive. Their efforts during the simulated games were encouraging to Joe Girardi, though they hardly have been alone in standing out at the plate. The manager even joked that he’s been concerned for some of the construction workers who are racing to finish the major renovations (in the neighborhood of $40 million) around the ballpark before Friday’s exhibition opener.
“The balls are flying, I can tell you that,” Girardi said. “We worry about the workers a little bit. You get a guy atop that elevator shaft [in deep left-center], and there are players close to going up there. The ball is really coming off the bat from a lot of our younger players. When you think about that, and I know it’s BP, the potential is there to have huge run production from some of these guys. That kind of excites me.”