The stocky kid in the Yankees’ cap drawing all the attention Wednesday afternoon near the home dugout wasn’t the team’s new slugger-in-residence, Luke Voit. It was Big Al, the New Jersey Little Leaguer and viral-video sensation, who was a VIP guest of the club.
Voit, in a bit of an upset, took his BP swings with the backups before that night’s game at the Stadium as Aaron Boone penciled in Greg Bird’s name at first base. It was a curious move by the manager, with Voit riding a six-game hitting streak, but Boone went back-to-back with Bird in an effort to perhaps capitalize on what he considered positive at-bats Tuesday.
The strategy didn’t work out, as the Yankees stumbled again in a 4-1 loss to the White Sox, dropping the series in the process. It wasn’t all Bird’s fault. He snapped an 0-for-21 skid with a leadoff double in the third inning, but failed to score, then later heard from the restless Bronx crowd when he flied out twice.
The worst of it came in the fifth, when Bird popped up to leftfield with two runners on, drawing a chorus of boos, the soundtrack that seems to follow him everywhere these days. And down to the Yankees’ final out, Boone pulled Bird from the on-deck circle and sent up Voit to face lefty reliever Jace Fry. He looked at a 3-and-2 curve for the game-ending K.
The fact that Bird showed up for work Wednesday in that 0-for-21 funk, and was coming off one of the more mindless errors you’ll ever see, didn’t prevent Boone from giving him another shot. As bad as Bird has been, he wasn’t ready to bury him yet. Not with over a month left.
Instead, Boone chose to focus on Bird’s solid contact in Tuesday night’s 5-4 walkoff victory, thinking that maybe he was on the verge of a breakthrough. In Boone’s mind, facing another righthander in Reynaldo Lopez would “give him a chance to get going and help us.” Plus, he’d be back on the bench anyway Thursday when Boone planned to go with Voit against Tigers lefty Francisco Liriano.
Despite this shaping up to be a strict platoon, Boone denied he was opting for that course of action. He prefers the term “fluid situation” at first base, which to us sounds like a euphemism for stripping Bird of any semblance of the starting job. The Yankees just aren’t ready to spell it out with such inflexible terminology.
When Boone was asked if he preferred something less fluid for first base, he smiled before answering, “If we’re at the point of someone being massively productive.” Since Mark Teixiera or Tino Martinez isn’t walking through that door, the manager is likely going to have to settle for Voit, who may be able to stay relatively hot through the next month or so.
Last weekend, the Yankees obviously had run out of patience with Bird in starting Voit against a trio of righthanded pitchers. Their reward was three homers in the span of two games, and Bird’s fate appeared to be sealed before the Yankees headed home from Camden Yards. But simply dumping a player with Bird’s unrealized potential is a difficult step to take, especially when Boone already was trying to find a way to make up for the losses of Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius.
Voit certainly wasn’t expected to be that guy. Brian Cashman acquired him from the Cardinals at the trade deadline for a pair of relievers -- Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos -- caught in a perpetual roster squeeze, along with some international signing money that he quickly packaged for some teenage prospects. What Cashman also got back may end up being the next Shane Spencer, if Voit gets enough of an opportunity.
In the seven games since his second call-up, Voit was hitting .476 (10-for-21) with three homers and seven RBIs, a significant upgrade from the doughnut Bird had provided recently. That’s been enough to bump Bird aside occasionally, but not entirely. If this trend continues, however, Boone won’t have much choice but to lean heavily on Voit.
“I’m trying to keep both guys relevant,” Boone said. “To put both guys in a position to succeed.”
But his primary objective is the greater good, and Bird isn’t doing much right now to help the Yankees win games. As long as Voit is, he’s making it an easier decision for Boone going forward.