If Spring Training stats mattered, Greg Bird would be a superstar.
I distinctly remember coming into Opening Day 2017 believing more than ever that Bird was going to break through. He’d missed a full season with shoulder surgery after his eye-opening debut, but now he was healthy and ready to go. He homered seemingly every day and was the future, along with Gary Sanchez.
But with a week to go in Grapefruit League play, an injury struck. From there, it was a now-familiar story. Bird swung through hittable fastballs, lost his approach at the plate and was soon on the injured list.
In 2018, he didn’t make it through a week of the spring before suffering an injury and his debut came on May 26. His 2019 spring was a reasonable facsimile of 2017, and he similarly couldn’t make it through April despite finally coming off a full and healthy offseason.
In his five years as a Major League player, Greg Bird rarely, if ever, caught a break. His shoulder and feet let him down, eroding his talent during each of his opportunities to secure a long-term role. That’s why he was ultimately surpassed by Luke Voit and Mike Ford, and why he’s all but assured of playing for another organization next spring.
We saw the potential. Before he even reached the Majors, he was the Arizona Fall League MVP, a prospect with a limitless bat. When Mark Teixeira went down with a broken leg, Bird ran with the opportunity and was the Yankees’ best hitter as they chased a postseason berth. Remember when he gave the Yankees’ a crucial win in Toronto with a three-run homer? I sure do.
After his debut season left Yankee fans wanting more, they had to wait another 18 months as his nagging shoulder injury required surgery, the first of his many MLB ailments.
With Chris Carter’s limp bat and glove, Bird had every chance to star when he came back. His foot wouldn’t cooperate. The season was almost lost entirely, but Bird showed just enough to earn a postseason roster spot and the starting first base gig.
You’d be forgiven if your belief in Bird was wavering by then. The tabloids hadn’t been kind to him and his average was well below the Mendoza line.
But Bird was ready for that postseason. He put the Yankees ahead for good with a single in the Wild Card Game, then homered twice in the ALDS. His second homer was the most important of his career. In a scoreless tie, against the best left-handed reliever in baseball, Bird lived up to the moment with an unforgettable blast.
Though Bird would homer in ALCS Game 1, his impact on that series would come with his lack of foot speed, getting thrown out at the plate twice in crucial sequences.
And once the optimism of October wore off, so did Bird’s welcome. He never again hit well enough to stave off the cavalcade of players the Yankees threw at first base, and his injuries precluded a challenge to Voit or Ford for the past two seasons.
Bird can now elect to go to free agency and he should get another chance, perhaps his last chance, to make good on the promise of yesteryear. We held onto our faith in Bird, and only in March did it pay off.
The Yankees make the 40-man roster protection deadline an event last night by adding over a half-dozen players and jettisoning some big names to make room for them. ICYMI, here’s the summary of their moves:
Added: Deivi García, Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Estevan Florial, Nick Nelson, Miguel Yajure, Brooks Kriske DFA’d: Nestor Cortes Jr., Greg Bird Released: Jacoby Ellsbury
Here are my thoughts on the whole sequence of moves, starting with who the Yankees added:
It’s well-known how electrifying Deivi can be, and he nearly earned a spot on the roster last September. With the 40-man spot secured, he could get strong consideration for the Opening Day roster in 2020, though it’s more likely he gets further reps in Triple-A after he struggled with the MLB ball and tired down the stretch in 2019.
Meanwhile, Gil, Medina and Florial are further away from the Majors. Gil and Medina raised their profiles with strikeout-laden 2019 seasons for Single-A Charleston, followed by brief stints with Single-A Tampa. Gil, funny enough, was acquired via trade in March 2018 when the Yankees needed to clear room on the 40-man roster. Medina doesn’t turn 21 until May while Gil will be 22 in June.
Florial had his second consecutive down year, both hampered by wrist/hand injuries in Spring Training. That’s part of why he didn’t make Baseball America’s top 10 Yankee prospects. His chances of reaching the Majors in 2020 are slim (as they are for Gil and Medina), but the outfielder would have easy to keep on a 26-man roster for a rebuilding team. Now, he has to find a way to cut down on strikeouts and tap into his potential before it’s too late.
2. The borderline additions: Yajure and Nelson were mentioned by most outlets as bubble players with some favoring Yajure as a “must add.” Kriske, though, came as a surprise even if his name was mentioned.
All three are right-handed pitchers who spent time in Double-A last season, but that’s where the similarities end. Yajure specializes in control, issuing just 30 walks in 138 2/3 innings across High-A and Double-A last season. Though just 21, he has missed development time with Tommy John surgery that knocked out his 2017 season, but he’s fully recovered and has hit 97 on the gun.
However, unlike the four locks, Yajure didn’t make either Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus’ Top 10s. He should start in Trenton after making two starts there in 2019 and could rise from there.
Nelson, meanwhile, reached Triple-A briefly after excelling in the Eastern League. High strikeout rate, high walk rate, the 2016 fourth-rounder has potential to make the Majors in 2020, though that would most likely come in relief as he’s behind García and Michael King for now.
Kriske was the lone full-time reliever of the bunch. Another pitcher who has gone under the knife for TJ, he’s the oldest player added at 25 and is a former sixth-round pick as a senior sign from USC. He could be the latest homegrown college reliever to find his way up the Yankees pipeline. The Bombers wouldn’t have added him to the 40-man as a 25-year-old reliever if he weren’t MLB ready in the near future.
The right-hander added a splitter after joining Trenton, and it appears to have worked wonders for him. Look at his funky motion (and the swings and misses).
3. Yankees not nearly done: So the Yankees are now at 40 men exactly with their 40-man roster. That leaves them no room for Domingo Germán when he’s eventually reinstated from the Commissioner’s exempt list, nor for retaining free agents like Brett Gardner, Dellin Betances, Cameron Maybin or Austin Romine. Or, if this is your cup of tea, Gerrit Cole.
The Yankees had to add the seven players above by Wednesday or else they would have been ripe for the Rule 5 draft in a couple of weeks. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be used as trade bait between now and the start of 2020. In fact, the Bombers might have added one or two players to maintain leverage in ongoing trade talks.
As mentioned above, the Yankees acquired Gil in March 2018. They did so after adding Jake Cave to the 40-man roster the previous fall, only to need room for Brandon Drury in Spring Training. A similar fate could befall Nelson, Kriske or one of the other recent additions, or one of the higher-end prospects (Deivi, Gil, Medina Florial) could be packaged in a larger deal.
I thought the Yankees were going to swing a trade, hence why they went up until the 8 p.m. deadline. They could have been working on one and just didn’t find one that made sense. The Rays, meanwhile, dealt Jose De Leon and Christopher Sanchez to alleviate their own logjam, though they also DFA’d Matt Duffy.
4. Current 40-man roster composition: The Yankees are far from done and they’ll need to excise players currently on their 40-man to make any further MLB moves. But as they stand right now, they have 24 pitchers and just 16 hitters on the roster, with Germán still in the organization as a de facto 41st man while awaiting suspension. While that split remains lopsided, it’s because the Yankees like their pitching prospects. They had enough good ones that other teams would have snapped up, and now they’ll have to sort them out.
Chances are, not all 24 pitchers will make it through the next three months until pitchers and catchers report. Here’s how I see the current chopping block, in order:
Holder and Tarpley are each fine up-and-down arms, but they haven’t proven themselves more than OK middle relievers in a team full of pitchers. Holder is arb eligible for the first time and is projected to make $800K in 2020, but he also had a 6.31 ERA over 41 1/3 innings last year. Even with a strong 2018, he might struggle to make it through, as could Tarpley. Both had injuries that hampered their 2019 seasons.
Adams hasn’t taken as a starter, so it’s probably time to move him to relief full time and see if a healthy version of him can make it as a reliever. Kriske and Abreu, though both in Double-A and near the Majors, each have an injury history and could be expendable.
Luis Cessa, meanwhile, could fit on that list as he’s out of options, and the Yankees have that glut of pitchers on the roster. If J.A. Happ, Jonathan Loaisiga or Germán are moved to long relief in 2020, Cessa’s spot becomes tenuous, as it does if Adams breaks through.
Key date to watch out for: Dec. 2. That’s the non-tender deadline, which could be Holder, Cessa or Tarpley’s last stand.
5. Bird’s likely exit: Though the Yankees could potentially retain Bird after designating him for assignment Wednesday, I wouldn’t count on it. As he has more than three years of service time, he can elect free agency if he clears waivers.
With Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu and Mike Ford all on the roster, the Yankees scarcely have room for a first base-only player like Bird that can barely stay on the field. His one-week stint in the Dominican Winter League was encouraging but not enough to save his roster spot.
If he hits free agency, maybe New York could work a Minor League deal with their erstwhile first baseman. The organization has certainly believed in him enough to keep him through a laundry list of injuries, and they were rewarded briefly in the 2017 postseason.
Ah, well. At this point, Bird is better off seeking greener pastures with an organization that has more of an opening at first. The talent has always been there, so hopefully his body can hold up wherever he ends up in 2020.
6. The end of the Ellsbury Era: It was time for the Yankees to move on from the veteran outfielder, even if it meant eating $26 million in the process. It’s been 25 months since Ellsbury donned Yankee pinstripes and Brian Cashman didn’t seem confident in Ellsbury’s renewed health during the GM’s end-of-year press conference.
“It’s hard to say based on how things have played out,” Cashman said of Ellsbury’s availability after Aaron Hicks’ surgery. “Right now he’s not someone in a position health-wise where I can answer anything in the affirmative.”
Ellsbury had $21 million due his way in 2020, though the New York Post reported that was uninsured. The Yankees had previously been able to insure his contract, so they weren’t on the hook for all of his 2018 and ’19 salaries. (To clarify, Ellsbury got all the money owed to him, but an insurance company partially compensated the Bombers.) He also is due $5 million to buy out his option for 2021.
The seven-year, $153 million contract is a notable blemish on Cashman’s strong history of signing position players in free agency. In the same offseason, Shin-Soo Choo earned a similar seven-year deal from the Rangers and was an All-Star in 2018. He was worth 14.1 WAR to Ellsbury’s 9.5 ove the last six seasons, and he still has another year to go.
Meanwhile, the Ellsbury signing came on the heels of Robinson Cano’s exit to Seattle. The Yankees reportedly offered him $175 million over seven years, but the second baseman signed for less AAV ($24 million) over 10 seasons. After a lackluster 2013 season where the Bombers’ offense cratered, the team might have felt it needed to make a splash on offense when they signed Ellsbury in addition to Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann.
Ultimately, the signing did not work out at all, outside of Ellsbury’s single-season, career and postseason catcher’s interference records, all set with the Yankees. OK, I guess I’m the only one who cares about that last part. It was time for the Yankees to close this chapter.
7. Bye to Nasty Nestor: Lastly, the Yankees removed Cortes from the 40-man roster. He doesn’t have as big a name as Ellsbury or Bird, but baseball’s Mr. 305 should be remembered fondly for his contributions to the 2019 Yankees.
The final numbers are ugly. He had a 5.67 ERA/5.57 FIP and a 79 ERA+, allowing 16 home runs over 66 2/3 innings. The soft-tossing left-hander rarely topped 90 mph, but he got by on guile and an advanced pitching acumen.
Cortes was the bulk guy to form an impressive tandem with opener Chad Green from May well into the summer. The duo helped the Yankees stave off rotation armageddon. Green obviously deserves more of the accolades when it comes to the Yankees’ opener success, but Cortes kept it going. As the bulk pitcher, he helped the Yankees get wins over the Rays (x2), Indians, Astros and Twins, among others.
As the Yankees have previously DFA’d him and the Orioles sent him back in the 2018 Rule 5 draft, I’m pretty certain he can elect free agency. Another team could use him in a bulk/opener role. For whatever reason, I feel as if he’d fit the Seattle Mariners well.
The Yankees added OF Estevan Florial and RHPs Deivi García, Luis Gil, Luis Medina, Brooks Kriske, Nick Nelson and Miguel Yajure to the 40-man roster Wednesday. To make additional room on the roster, New York designated Greg Bird and Nestor Cortes Jr. for assignment while Jacoby Ellsbury was released.
After today’s moves, the Yankees now have a full 40-man roster before making any free agent moves. Assuming they don’t make further room, they won’t be able to select a player in next month’s Rule 5 draft.
While the Yankees were expected to add many of those seven players to the roster, it was surprising that they fit all of them, including Kriske, Nelson and Yajure, who weren’t locks. Meanwhile, the moves to jettison both Bird and Ellsbury alongside Cortes comes as a shock. Bird made just 41 plate appearances last season while Cortes pitched to a 5.67 ERA.
Oswaldo Cabrera, Chris Gittens, Hoy Jun Park and Rony García are among the players the Yankees left unprotected. For more on those names and others, check out Derek’s Rule 5 primer from Tuesday.
In the past, the Yankees have lost plenty of players in the Rule 5 draft, though players are often returned. Cortes, Mike Ford, Caleb Smith and Iván Nova were each selected then returned in recent seasons. The Yankees weren’t so fortunate with Tommy Kahnle and Luis Torrens, each of whom stuck in their new locales.
The last time New York selected a player in the Rule 5 draft was 2011, when the Bombers chose Brad Meyers and purchased the contract of Cesar Cabral, though neither ultimately lasted long in the Bronx.
While the Pinstripers made the aforementioned moves Wednesday, they had previously culled their system of players who they would have needed to add Wednesday. OF Blake Rutherford (White Sox, Robertson/Kahnle/Frazier deal), RHPs Taylor Widener (D-backs, Drury deal) and J.P. Feyereisen (Brewers) were all added to their respective 40-man rosters.
INF Nick Solak, also part of the Brandon Drury deal, was dealt from Tampa Bay to Texas at the deadline last year due to the Rays’ own roster crunch. The Yankees also dealt 1B Ryan McBroom to Kansas City last August and he has remained on the Royals’ 40-man roster. Dom Thompson-Williams (Paxton trade) was not added to the Mariners’ 40-man roster.
On Opening Day, the Yankees had Greg Bird, Miguel Andújar and Troy Tulowitzki all in the starting lineup. While Andújar had plenty of optimism surrounding him, both Bird and Tulo were wild cards after missing most or all of 2018.
Setting the stage for the Next Man Up, these were the men who went down and stayed that way, seeing their seasons end prematurely.
Miggy Two-bags doubled his way into Yankee fans’ hearts in 2018, finishing a Shohei Ohtani away from New York’s second straight Rookie of the Year. While he wasn’t much for walking, he hit 74 extra-base hits, set the Yankees’ rookie doubles record and absolutely mashed, all while playing minimal defense.
So expectations were high. He was set to man third base from the start of the year, get a fair number of DH days to offset his porous glove and continue hitting the snot out of the ball at age-24.
Andújar got hits in his first three games. On Opening Day, he had a sacrifice fly that would have been a grand slam in warmer weather. Two days later, he struck out swinging as the potential winning run to end the Bombers’ first loss.
Disaster struck in his third game. Orioles catcher Pedro Severino attempted to back pick Andújar at third base. The try went unsuccessful, but the second-year third baseman injured his shoulder diving back into the base.
Andújar would miss the next month with a tear in his labrum. He retured on May 4 for a nine-game stretch where he went 3-for-34 with a walk and nine strikeouts and no extra-base hits. With his power siphoned off by the nagging shoulder injury, Andújar underwent labrum surgery that ended his season.
Bird remains the king of Spring Training. After being left off the 2018 postseason roster, the first baseman had a full offseason to prepare for 2019 and raked in the Grapefruit League. That created some hope that he could finally put injuries aside and return to the Greg Bird that raked in his 2015 debut and 2017 postseason. The “Swatting an Andrew Miller home run into the darkest recesses of the Indians’ psyche” Greg Bird.
His Grapefruit League fooled fans once again. Bird elicited boos on Opening Day after striking out in his first three at-bats, but he turned things around with a solo shot to cap the victory. That went down as his lone homer and RBI for the season.
Bird singled in five of his first six starts and walked twice in the other, but the strikeouts also racked up quickly. After his 10th game, coming on April 13, he had to go on the injured list with a torn plantar fascia, an injury Eli Manning has helped make famous in recent years.
That was it for Bird’s season. He never got close to returning to the field and finished the year with a paltry .171/.293/.257 line after striking out 16 times in 41 plate appearances.
If you were going to predict the two people to get injury from the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup, Bird and Tulowitzki were the obvious choices. Tulo’s season-opening start was his first appearance in a Major League game since July 28, coming before bone spurs eliminated a season and a half for him.
The Yankees signed Tulowitzki to man shortstop with Didi Gregorius out for the first portion of the season. Brian Cashman reportedly considered Freddy Galvis as an alternative, but the Bombers chose to sign Tulowitzki for the league minimum instead.
Tulo homered in Spring Training against his old club and showed enough with four Grapefruit League dingers to get the start on March 28. The team basically stated he wouldn’t start back-to-back games in the early going with DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres set to fill the middle infield when he could not.
The first two games went swimmingly for Tulo. He doubled in the opener and then homered and walked twice in Game No. 2. As with Bird, that’d be his lone homer and RBI for the year and, in Tulo’s case, the final of his career.
Playing just his fifth game in pinstripes, Tulowitzki left after four innings on April 3 against Detroit. He had suffered a calf injury and would have a setback in his rehab, never returning to the club.
At midseason, he announced his retirement. He got the brief chance to play for his favorite childhood team, but that’s little solace as Tulowitzki’s potential Hall of Fame career was torn apart by injuries.
While Tulowitzki is done with the game, Andujar and Bird persist. Either could be finished with the Yankees as teams have inquired about Andujar in trades while Bird represents a prime non-tender candidate.
One of Andújar and Bird should make the Yankees’ 2020 Opening Day roster, the former being the more likely one. Andujar is just 13 months removed from a remarkable rookie season, while Bird’s tantalizing accomplishments are more than two years in the rearview mirror.
A lot to cover with the Arizona Fall League coming to a close.
News & Notes
Greg Bird is playing for Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. The first baseman missed all but 10 games in 2019 and has played just 190 games of baseball, Minor Leagues and AFL included, since the end of 2015.
Some former Yankees MiLBers playing winter ball in the Dominican include Melky Mesa, Ryan McBroom, Abiatal Avelino and Jorge Mateo
Baseball America released its draft report card (subs req) for 2019. Anthony Volpe and Josh Smith were named NYY’s best pure hitters in the class while Volpe also earned “Best Defensive Player” honors. BA has 13th-round pick Nelson Alvarez, he of a 100 mph fastball, as a potential steal.
BA also had their top prospects for each Minor League this year. The Yankees were well represented in the lower minors with four players (including Volpe) in the Appy League, three players (including Smith and Ezequiel Duran) from the NY-Penn League and four players in the GCL.
Surprise Sagueros… They went 17-12 before losing in the AFL Championship Game
RHP Glenn Otto: 6 starts, 24 IP, 10 H, 5 R, 13 BB, 26 K, 2 HR — Otto displayed his talent in his AFL stay, finishing seventh in strikeouts and 10th in ERA in the prospect-laden league. His 13 walks were tied for the league-high though. After missing plenty of time in 2019, this gives him a needed boost into next season.
RHP Daniel Bies: 10 G, 11.1 IP, 14 H, 6 R (5 ER), 2 BB, 14 K — The strikeout and walk numbers are encouraging, just as they were when the 6-foot-8 righty floated between levels this season.
RHP: Aaron McGarity: 10 G, 11.1 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 15 K, 1 HR, 1 HBP — After pitching mostly in the low minors, this was impressive. McGarity could find himself a quick riser as another Yankee college reliever.
RHP: Derek Craft: 3 G, 2.1 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 BB, 0 K, 1 HR — Craft came to the AFL late and barely got a chance to pitch. The 2018 16th-round pick pitched for Pulaski and Staten Island this year.
C Donny Sands: 16 G/62 PA, 11-for-54, 3 2B, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 8 BB, 12 K — Sands batted.204/.306/.315 overall with both his ISO and walk rate going up from the regular season.
1B Brandon Wagner: 20 G/84 PA, 15-for-70, 4 2B, 2 HR, 21 RBI, 12 BB, 27 K, 0-for-1 on SB — Wagner’s line from the AFL reads .214/.333/.357, which is much better than his .570 regular season OPS. The 2018 breakout player in the system took a step back in Trenton in 2019, so the 24-year-old New Jersey product got a chance to prove himself after a tough season.
OF Josh Stowers: 20 G/77 PA, 8-for-61, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 13 BB, 27 K, 4-for-7 on SB — Stowers clearly didn’t hit, either for power or average, yet he maintained his walk rate at 16.9 percent. The 2018 draft pick missed time at midseason, yet he still played in 105 games, so there’s a chance he was just tired from the long year as happens to plenty of AFL players.