For a minute there, it looked as if Greg Bird was going to get to Opening Day before an X-ray room.
No such luck.
When the Yankees’ lineup card was posted Thursday, Bird’s name was conspicuously absent although he had been scheduled to play against St. Louis. Before long, Aaron Boone informed us that he had sent Bird back to Tampa because of stiffness in his right elbow area, which was struck a day earlier by a pitch from the Astros’ Wade Miley.
The good news? The X-rays and CT scan were negative, so Bird apparently is fine to resume spring training once the swelling goes down, which could take another day in Boone’s estimation.
“I don’t want to mess with his mechanics,” Boone said.
So the Yankees seemingly dodged a bullet, as well as sidestepped Bird’s uncanny knack for catching bad breaks. While it’s hardly unusual to be hit in the arm, the pitch somehow got around the plastic-reinforced padding Bird wears to protect that very spot.
Frankly, we’ve been conditioned to expect the worst whenever Bird is associated with aches and pains. After taking over for the injured Mark Teixeira in 2015 and going on an 11-homers-in-46-games binge that Brian Cashman ironically described Thursday as “Luke Voit-like,” he played a total of 130 games in the next three seasons and had a slash line of .196/.287/.399.
During that time, Bird missed all of 2016 because of shoulder surgery, then had the next two years chopped up by a pair of ankle operations. He arrived for this spring training feeling stronger, thanks to packing on 20 pounds, but now he’s in competition with the incumbent Voit.
The situation has been a win-win for the Yankees, as Bird and Voit have raked in the Grapefruit League. Rather than having to demote one, which originally seemed likely, the Yankees should be able to take both of them north for Opening Day — as long as they can stay upright into next week. (Because of Aaron Hicks’ back injury, Giancarlo Stanton will see more action in leftfield and the DH spot will be open for Bird or Voit.)
Cashman referred to their neck-and-neck competition as akin to a heavyweight boxing match, but there won’t really be a loser until the Yankees need to make room for Hicks, presumably around April 5.
Bird has the slight overall edge, hitting .333 (13-for-39) with a 1.131 OPS compared with Voit’s .316 (12-for-38) and 1.053. But Voit has four homers and 11 RBIs and Bird has three and eight. Bird is the better defender, and as a lefthanded hitter, a better complement to a righty-heavy lineup.
But it’s only natural for Cashman to have trust issues with Bird, simply because he’s been burned by him so many times.
That’s why the GM didn’t hesitate to say that it was Voit’s job to lose coming into spring training, and still needs to see Bird continue to perform once the regular season begins.
“He looks like the guy that we remember seeing from not too long ago,” Cashman said. “And if that’s the case, then kudos to us for having the patience to wait on it. But at the same time, it doesn’t guarantee anything. It’s nice to be able to talk that he looks really good, but you’ve got to be able to deploy it on a consistent basis.”
Fair or not, Bird’s plunking Wednesday did stir up another round of injury-prone commentary, just because it’s such a large part of his resume. Some guys get tagged with that reputation, and when you’re on the field as little as Bird has been, the label tends to stick. He understands that, and as Cashman mentioned, the Yankees have been holding out hope that Bird can get past it this year.
Trading for Voit last July was the hedge against Bird’s medical chart, but then he put a stranglehold on the position by slamming 14 homers in a span of 114 at-bats in his last 32 games. All these months later, the Yankees now have two great candidates for first base after previously having none. Knock on wood.
“I think they’re both capable major-leaguers,” Cashman said. “That’s what it appears to be, that’s what their belief is. Our belief is the same. But has anybody proved it over an extended period of time yet? No.
“Voit came in last year and solved the problem significantly for us. That was important. Hopefully that’s who he is, and hopefully Bird can be who we think he is, and when the dust settles — boom.”
Only a few more days in Florida to get through.