Greg Bird’s name is not known to many outside the Yankee organization yet, but several evaluators believe that the New York Yankees’ fifth round pick in the 2011 Amateur Draft could be the team’s next great first baseman. His consistent bat and easy approach at the plate are qualities that have him on track to land in the Bronx in the near future.
A Tennessee native, Bird broke his commitment to the University of Arkansas after being drafted in exchange for a $1.1 million signing bonus. After a dominant season with the Charleston RiverDogs in 2013, Bird’s name was squarely placed on the prospect map when he received the Kevin Lawn Award as the Yankees’ top minor league player.
Bird, who played 75 games with the Class-A Advanced Tampa Yankees prior to his promotion at the beginning of August, has noticed a significant change in the level of play in the Eastern League.
“Obviously every level it gets a little better, and I think here it’s just that consistent quality that guys have,” Bird said when asked about the biggest differences between levels. “They just don’t make the dumb mistakes as much. Obviously they still happen, but the baseball gets better and more consistent.”
Now in his first month with the Trenton Thunder, more consistent play by his opponents has not slowed Bird down. Instead, the 21-year-old has adjusted very well to Eastern League pitching, and earned Player of the Week in his very first week with the team. The hot start with the Thunder went a long way towards Bird being able to find his stride in Double-A.
“That first week was great,” Bird said prior to Tuesday’s series opener against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. “We started on the road, and I didn’t get any hits on the road, so to come home and do it in front of the fans here was pretty cool. That first week was definitely more comfortable and [helped getting] settled in.”
Since his promotion, Bird has seen a significant improvement in his power at the plate. After hitting just seven home runs in 274 at-bats with Tampa, Bird has hit five in his first 48 at-bats with the Thunder. However, Bird believes that getting settled in after a lower back injury cost him the first month of the season was the turning point in overcoming a slow start.
“I think it’s just kind of getting settled in,” Bird noted. “The second half of the season in Tampa has been better. The first half, I got off to a late start, missed April, missed spring training. I think just settling in and getting used to playing again every day, I think it was just a combination of those.”
“Up here, it’s just been like old me,” Bird added.
His current manager, Tony Franklin, has been pleased with Bird’s work at the plate so far, even joking that he certainly was not mad at the first baseman for his increased power since joining the Thunder.
“Greg’s got a heck of a demeanor at home plate,” Franklin told me. “He takes pitches well, he works the count, he gets in good counts to hit in. I’m not surprised that he’s got as many home runs as he’s got here.”
Like all players at the Double-A level, Bird does still have holes in his game. As a former high school catcher, the transition to first base has presented him with the greatest challenge to date. Bird did have some experience at the position before the switch, which has eased the transition a bit.
“I’ve always played first too, so it wasn’t too difficult,” said Bird. “Obviously there was little things that I had to learn because there’s more to [first base] than most people think. Defensively, I’ve got a lot of room to grow. I’ve definitely come a long way this year, so [the goal is] to just continue that.”
One thing that has helped Bird mature as a player and learn how to be a pro was his access to veterans such as Derek Jeter after being invited to spring training a year ago. Though he grew up a St. Louis Cardinals fan, Bird felt honored to become part of the Yankee tradition when he was invited to spring training for the first time.
“You get to be around guys who have been doing this for a long time,” Bird recalled. “I [learned] how to go about my business the right way, how to carry myself, and how to be a Yankee.”