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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Bryce Harper could solve Yankees’ problem at first base

Free agent-to-be has been working out at first and would be welcome addition for Yankees with Greg Bird having a disappointing season.

Nationals' Bryce Harper looks on against the Yankees

Nationals' Bryce Harper looks on against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 12. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Thanks to the inexplicable disappointment that is Greg Bird, the Yankees really have only one position on the field where they’re piecing it together on a nightly basis. For Tuesday’s game, it was Brandon Drury’s turn at first base against Braves lefthander Sean Newcomb, even though Aaron Boone refuses to call what’s happening a platoon.

But there’s no point in protecting Bird any longer. Not until he starts living up to his supposed high ceiling again, and Bird hasn’t done much this season to suggest he deserves to be the Yankees’ first baseman — for now or the future.

Which makes what occurred Monday in Washington all that more interesting. Bryce Harper grabbed a first baseman’s glove and took ground balls before that night’s game against the Red Sox. The Nationals have no immediate plans to use him at the position, although Harper reportedly told manager Dave Martinez he’d like to play there. But the fact that the former MVP rightfielder is willing to try this particular position — combined with the Yankees’ troubling void there — introduces a new free-agent scenario for both parties involved.

It’s the only unimpeded pathway to the Bronx for Harper unless his financial demands, as brokered by Scott Boras, are deemed too expensive. The Yankees’ outfield is beyond full — we’re expecting them to pick up Brett Gardner’s $12.5-million option for next season — but first base is relatively empty. Bird’s hold on the spot has never seemed more tenuous.

Harper, 25, is an exceptional athlete, so there’s little doubt he could get up to speed at first in a hurry, and Martinez indicated that Harper would be used at the position only in an emergency. But if he’s able to get regular practice there, it wouldn’t be all that surprising for the Nationals to give him a start eventually.

“It’s just kind of him getting outside of his comfort zone and doing something different,” Martinez told reporters in Washington. “And he’s actually not bad. I don’t know if he’ll ever start a game there, but I believe if we’re in a pinch, some kind of decisions in-game, he probably could play there.”

Four months from free agency, planting a seed like this could be a smart ploy to potentially lure the Yankees into a Harper conversation they didn’t figure to be a part of.

Brian Cashman seemed to remove himself from the Harper market last December by trading for Giancarlo Stanton and assuming roughly $260 million of his original 13-year, $325-million contract.

Even with the Stanton swap, the Yankees managed to stay comfortably under this year’s $197-million luxury-cap threshold. That was crucial for Hal Steinbrenner, who not only intends to avoid paying the tax for ’18 but can reset the team’s rate by staying under the threshold. Once that’s done, the Yankees are free to open the cash spigots again for ’19.

In his two series against the Yankees this season, Harper, who grew up a fan of Mickey Mantle, was coy about his pending free agency. The Yankees, however, can’t disguise their issues at first base. It’s a lingering problem, and Bird, who entered Tuesday hitting .198 with a .733 OPS, isn’t going to convince anyone in the Yankees’ hierarchy that he should be more than a platoon player.

Bird was booed loudly Monday night after striking out on three pitches with the bases loaded in the 10th inning of the Braves’ 5-3 victory. He wound up on the bench again Tuesday for the second time in four games since Friday’s two-homer night against the Red Sox.

“We really want to get Birdie going what he means to our lineup when he’s going pretty good,’’ Boone said before Tuesday’s game. “And when he’s going good, he handles lefties really well.”

Bird did start Sunday with David Price pitching for Boston and went 0-for-4 with a strikeout. The just-recalled Drury, his chief competition, went 0-for-3 with three Ks against Chris Sale the previous night, and Neil Walker (.188 BA, .523 OPS) is in perpetual roster jeopardy.

“We’ll just kind of manage our way through it,” Boone said. “But that’s kind of a day to day, week to week, who we want to get in there, and what matchups.”

Despite the sticker shock, Harper would make first the last thing Boone has to worry about.

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