This past season the Yankees started their youth movement in earnest. It kinda sorta began with the Greg Bird and Luis Severino call-ups last year, but it wasn’t until the team started trading veterans for prospects at the deadline that their direction was clear. The Yankees are going young, so much so that they’re moving productive veterans for kids in Single-A. It’s a whole new world.
Once again, the Yankees called up a bunch of young players in the second half this year, most notably Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge. Others like Tyler Austin and Luis Cessa were around too. So was Severino. The young guy who wasn’t around was Bird. The presumed first baseman of the future spent the entire 2016 season rehabbing from February surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
The 2016 season was a lost season for Bird. He didn’t get to advance his career in any way, which stinks for a guy who would have played the entire season at age 23. That’s a crucial development year, especially after his successful MLB cameo last year. Let’s review Bird’s lost year and its big picture impact on the Yankees.
How Did He Get Hurt?
Bird hurt himself during an offseason workout, though the shoulder trouble was not new. He spent a month on the Double-A disabled list with a shoulder problem in the middle of the 2015 season. Apparently the shoulder was never really healthy the rest of the season. Bird admitted to not necessarily playing through pain, but playing through occasional discomfort. He hit those eleven homers in 46 games with the Yankees with a less than 100% shoulder.
The offseason workouts exacerbated the problem and led to the surgery. It was not one awkward movement or one exercise that caused it. This was a wear and tear injury. It started in Double-A and gradually got worse and worse. In February, the shoulder finally gave out and Bird needed surgery. Maybe the Yankees could have done something differently to keep Bird healthy. I have no idea. I’m no doctor. Won’t change anything now.
By all accounts Bird’s rehab went according to plan. His surgery came with an 8-9 month recovery timetable, which meant there was a chance he could return late the season, but the Yankees were never going to push it. Bird spent the summer rehabbing in Tampa and the rehab went well enough for him to get at-bats in Instructional League in September. That was our first indication Bird was getting better.
Following the stint in Instructs, the Yankees sent Bird to the Arizona Fall League for more playing time, where he hit .215/.346/.354 (102 wRC+) with one home run in 17 games and 78 plate appearances. I’m not worried too much about the statistical performance given the long layoff. Bird had to get his swing back. The most important thing is he made it through the AzFL healthy and didn’t miss a game. He was limited to DH because he hasn’t been cleared to throw at 100% effort yet, but everything else is going well. The rehab is right on track.
The Service Time Situation
Bird spent the entire season on the Major League disabled list following the injury. I know he started last season in Double-A, but he was a big league ballplayer at the time of the injury. He played in the 2015 Wildcard Game, remember. Bird was a big leaguer when he got hurt and that means he spent the entire 2016 season on the disabled list collecting big league salary and service time. Good for him.
For the Yankees, it’s not so good. They lost one of Bird’s dirt cheap pre-arbitration years to injury. He’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2019 and eligible for free agency following the 2021 season, which is the same as it would have been had Bird been healthy and spent the entire year at first base and DH. Injuries are part of the game. They happen. It stinks when they happen to good young players when they are in the most cost effective years of their careers.
The Yankees Really Could Have Used Him
Geez, did the Yankees miss Bird this season or what? He hit .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) with eleven homers in 46 games during his 2015 cameo, and last winter ZiPS pegged Bird for a .252/.324/.486 (122 OPS+) batting line with 26 homers in 2016. That would have been really useful! The Yankees got nothing from the first base and DH positions this past season. Bird would have been a huge, huge help. Enough to get them into the postseason? Doubtful. But enough to make them more competitive and fun to watch.
Outlook for 2017
Hitters who have surgery to repair a torn labrum in their front shoulder are known to lose pop for some length of time. Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp both had the same surgery as Bird and needed a year or so to get back to normal. On the other hand, Brian McCann had the same surgery while with the Braves in 2012, and he bounced back just fine in 2013. There was no short-term power loss.
The Yankees are hoping Bird follows the McCann path and not the Kemp/Gonzalez path. The good news is the timing of the injury is on their side. Bird is going to be a full year out from surgery by time Spring Training rolls around. McCann, Kemp, and Gonzalez all had surgery after the season and were racing against the clock to get ready for Opening Day. There are no such issues with Bird. He’ll have a nice long rehab.
Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they want Bird to grab the first base job in Spring Training and run with it. That would be ideal. I also think they’re prepared to send Bird to Triple-A should he need time to get back on track following surgery. There’s little doubt Bird is the first baseman of the future. That’s the plan. Is the first baseman of the present? The first few weeks back from shoulder surgery will determine that.