First base has been a position of strength for the Yankees for almost as long as I can recall. I was a little too young to remember Don Mattingly, but I essentially have seen the team go from Tino Martinez to Jason Giambi to Mark Teixeira without many issues. Like many others, I thought Greg Bird was next in line after a stellar debut in 2015, but that’s now a distant memory. He has quite a bit of ground to make up on Luke Voit, who practically appeared out of thin air last summer and dominated.
Voit could become the actual long-term successor to Teixeira, even though there were a few seasons between the two’s careers in pinstripes. That’s not to say that all hope is lost for Bird, despite a lack of hitting and a litany of injuries in recent years. His career is still young, but Voit may have Wally Pipped him. There is technically an open competition for the position in camp, but Voit certainly has a leg up.
Can they coexist?
Even though Bird and Voit make for a natural platoon based on their handedness, Aaron Boone doesn’t envision that this season. Both players have options and can be sent to Triple-A, so the loser of the first base competition this spring could be destined for Scranton. Of course, it’s Voit’s job to lose, and understandably so. He killed it last summer after the trade while Bird floundered. The front office has made it clear that they’ve liked Voit for a while, too.
If a platoon isn’t in play, there’s only one other way the two could be on the same big league roster. One could play first while the other could be the designated hitter. Doing that would require Giancarlo Stanton to play left field, meaning that Brett Gardner would ride the bench. This would essentially make Gardner a full-time bench player, because such an alignment would likely be against right-handed pitchers. Gardner is really bad against southpaws now, so it’s not like he’d make sense to play against lefties when Bird sits.
It might not be bad for Gardner to assume the fourth outfielder role full-time, but that would indeed require Bird to re-emerge (and Voit to maintain his output). Bird’s already off to a good start this spring, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. In all likelihood, one of the two first basemen will be in Triple-A come opening day. My money is on Bird heading there.
Bird’s last gasp?
Not much has gone in Bird’s favor since the 2015 season ended. Shoulder surgery cost him his 2016 campaign. The excitement for his return in 2017 was crushed after he suffered an ankle injury in an exhibition game, which followed him throughout the year and hindered his performance. At least we have that playoff homer against Andrew Miller. 2018 was more of the same with injuries and poor performance. Bird is still 26, but it’s been a while since he’s been consistently good.
As mentioned, Bird still has options so he can (and likely will) be sent to the minors to the start the year. The Yankees don’t necessarily have to make a decision on his future with the organization yet, though it would behoove Bird to stay on the field and hit. Not just for his chances to stick with the Yankees, but for other opportunities around the league. If Voit is who he appears to be, Bird won’t get the job back, but he could impress another team enough to trade for him.
The Yankees can afford to be patient with Bird, too. He has multiple options and can’t refuse a minor league assignment as he is short of five years of service. Somehow, even though it feels like he’s been around forever, he’s accumulated just over three years of major league time. If the team wants to hang on to him this season and beyond, they can. Some extended time in the minors this season might be good for Bird to regain confidence anyway.
What if Bird rakes in the Grapefruit League? He’s already off to a fast start. Even if that continues throughout the next month or so, it’ll take other circumstances to get him on the roster. As noted before, alignment would be a challenge with both him and Voit in the lineup, especially if a platoon isn’t an option. In other words, it’s going to take an injury for him to start the season in the Bronx. Even if Voit struggles in camp, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees making a judgement on Voit over a poor spring.
Voit might be really, really good
I don’t think anyone is expecting Voit to rake like he did after the trade deadline last summer (187 wRC+), but he also doesn’t appear to be some flash in the pan. The front office coveted Voit long before the deal. His minor league performance was always great and his underlying quality of contact metrics were stellar. All he really needed was a chance to capitalize on. The Yankees gave him just that.
Statcast absolutely adores Voit, and I think it’s safe to say that similar data is what attracted the Yankees to him. He was all over the batted ball leaderboards last season. How about some visual proof? I know we’re not supposed to read into anything that happens in spring training, but that home run against the Rays on Sunday was pretty awesome.
I’ll dive into the projections in a minute, but I should note that they don’t see him as a fluke. All systems have him as a comfortably above average hitter. One forecast in particular believes he’s one of baseball’s best hitters. It sure sounds like the Yankees knew what they were doing when they targeted him last summer.
Now, there’s always a chance that the league figures out Voit. Maybe he really is your classic Quad-A slugger that happened to run into a hot streak at the big league level. Guys who are in their late twenties with limited major league exposure don’t often become significant contributors. If he flames out over the next few months, the Yankees better hope that Bird capable. Otherwise, hello full-time first baseman DJ LeMahieu.
- PECOTA: .280/.350/.506 (127 DRC+), 21 home runs, 2.6 WARP in 460 plate appearances
- ZiPS: .264/.344/.474 (116 OPS+), 22 home runs, 1.9 WAR in 483 plate appearances
- Steamer: .262/.336/.458 (115 wRC+), 19 home runs, 1.4 WAR in 449 plate appearances
Over at Baseball Prospectus, I mentioned that Voit was one of my favorite PECOTA projections for 2019. The system thinks he’s the 22nd best hitter in baseball! What a score for the front office if that’s truly the case. Even if he’s not that high up, the other projections are more than respectable. Getting this caliber of a hitter for Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos would be a remarkable heist. Even if he’s not as good as PECOTA indicates, I think we’d all be happy with the performance ZiPS and Steamer expect.
One cool thing about PECOTA are some of the player comps it spits out. 2015 Nate Freiman (DNP) and 2011 Steve Pearce (76 DRC+) are the top two guys, which isn’t exciting. However, the player who caught my eye was 2018 Jesus Aguilar. He’s Voit’s sixth-best comp, but very close to those ahead of him. Aguilar was pretty awesome last season as a 28 year-old right-handed and stocky first baseman in his first full season (135 DRC+). That description sound familiar? I wouldn’t mind Voit doing that in his age 28 year, this one.
- PECOTA: .234/.312/.421 (88 DRC+), 7 home runs, 0.0 WARP in 193 plate appearances
- ZiPS: .224/.317/.444 (101 OPS+), 16 home runs, 0.6 WAR in 350 plate appearances
- Steamer: .227/.315/.435 (102 wRC+), 12 home runs, 0.3 WAR in 210 plate appearances
Once again, PECOTA deviates from the other systems, this time in the opposite direction. It’s pessimistic one of the bunch. Not that ZiPS or Steamer are optimistic, of course. He wouldn’t be worthy of much playing time even if he met the other two projections.
Interestingly enough, even though PECOTA is down on Bird, his comps are better than Voit’s. The top one is 2006 Adam LaRoche (123 DRC+). His fifth, sixth, and seventh top comps are very good too: 2012 Mitch Moreland (111 DRC+), 2007 Justin Morneau (117 DRC+), 2008 Adrian Gonzalez (132 DRC+). Sign me up for any of those seasons. Still, it seems odd to get those as some of his top comps despite a poor projection. There are some less than stellar comps in there too (Mike Jacobs and Matt LaPorta), but the good ones outnumber the bad.
I’m pretty high on Voit and think he’s going to have no issue holding off Bird. To me, it’s pretty encouraging to see a few projection systems marry up with his Statcast metrics and the Yankees’ internal evaluations. There will be some understandable skepticism considering how few career major league opportunities he’s had, but all signs point to him as a good, perhaps great, hitter.
Meanwhile, I’ve lost quite a bit of hope in Bird. Even though he’s hitting well in a handful of spring games, I don’t want to get excited again. He really hasn’t done anything productive over an extended period since 2015, which was a long while ago. Plus, I don’t have much faith in him staying healthy. I hope I’m wrong.