Mark Teixeira. Jason Giambi. Robinson Cano. Hideki Matsui. Curtis Granderson. These are just a few of the names featured in Yankees lineups in this millennium. One of the main traits these five have in common, along with many other sluggers on recent Yankees teams, is that all of them bat left-handed (or switch-hit). Left-handed power hitters taking advantage of the House that Ruth Built's short porch in right field has been a staple of successful Yankees teams not only recently, but also throughout the franchise's history. This year, the familiar sight of a lefty power might be notably absent.
There are plenty of left-handed options in the lineup in 2017, but only one of them truly has the potential to be a long ball threat. Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, and Chase Headley have all shown flashes of power at different points of their careers, but it would be foolish to count on any of them exceeding 20 home runs this season. 15 might even be a stretch. Of that group, ZiPS projects Didi to hit the most dingers (15), while Ellsbury, Gardner, and Headley are expected to launch 9, 11, and 13, respectively. There's no better way to generate offense than hitting a home run, and we can already see that four of the nine regulars are probably going to be below average in doing so. There is one lefty, however, that might be able to pick up for the rest of his fellow lefties' slack: Greg Bird.
As a prospect, Bird had the ideal pedigree for a future left-handed slugger at Yankee Stadium. Then, in 2015, he impressed in his debut in pinstripes, when he blasted 11 long balls in 178 plate appearances and boasted a .268 ISO. That's the type of power we all had been dreaming of from Bird. It's not like he was one dimensional, either. He showed the ability to reach base (.343 OBP, 10.7% BB-rate) and spray the ball around the field. To everyone's dismay, the first baseman needed shoulder surgery in the offseason, which cost him all of 2016. That gets us to the crux of the Yankees' left-handed power issue. The Yankees need Bird to pick up where he left off in 2015, which is a tall order for a 24 year-old returning from a serious shoulder operation.
The encouraging news is that ZiPS projects 18 home runs from Bird in merely 397 plate appearances, or one in roughly every 22 times to the plate. In a full season (i.e. 600 PA), that translates to 27 taters. Beware of the full season prorated total, though. There's a good reason that ZiPS doesn't think Bird has a full season in him, and it's primarily because of the layoff in 2016. Aside from the possibility of another injury (Bird's had his fair share in the minors, even before the surgery), it's possible that Bird needs more time at Triple-A to regain comfort against live pitching in a less pressurized situation.
Bird did get a taste of game action in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago, but understandably struggled as he shook off the rust. His .215/.346/.354 (102 wRC+) reflected some difficulty in finding his power stroke, though at least his on-base ability was still present. It was a far cry from his 2014 MVP performance in the same league (156 wRC+).
Whether his time in fall ball was enough to get Bird back up to speed will remain to be seen. Fortunately, he's had all of the winter to continue preparation and will have plenty of reps in spring training. In a perfect world, Bird doesn't miss a beat and come Opening Day, he's penciled in to the heart of the order and ready to crank out 25 bombs while exhibiting patience in the batters' box. We can dream, right?
In reality, there are going to be some bumps in the road. It's a big ask to pencil in Bird as the everyday first baseman in the middle of the lineup. Moreover, I think we forget that he was still getting his feet wet at the big league level in 2015. Though he raked right out of the gate, he only had 178 plate appearances and also showed some vulnerability with his propensity to strikeout. Most prospects, even those who have immediate success after debuting, experience rough patches in the big leagues before truly settling in. Bird (probably) wasn't going to be an exception, and when you tack on a lost season because of injury, it's important to temper expectations for 2017. Really, it might not be until 2018 that Bird feels like himself again. Should that be the case, the Yankees dearth in left-handed power will be glaring. It's not a death knell, as there's no requirement for winning teams to possess such a characteristic. Yet, for the Yankees, winning and left-handed power seems to go hand in hand.