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A healthy, hungry Greg Bird is itching to reclaim a roster spot with the Yankees

By and large, the 2019 Yankees are content with sending out a lineup devoid of left-handed power.  A few years ago, this would’ve been somewhat of a pressing matter — Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch is tailor-made for lefties, as everyone knows — but the modern age Yankees hitters are proficient at driving the ball to all parts of the field.  And recent history suggests that a righty-heavy lineup isn’t inherently inferior to lineups that contain more balance. 

Then again, the Yankees wouldn’t object to some balance.  They’d welcome the opportunity to add a reliable lefty bat before Opening Day arrives.

No, cross Bryce Harper off the list.  He’s not a realistic candidate. 

But what about Greg Bird?  Perhaps he’s the answer. 

While the 26-year-old first baseman enters spring training labeled as an underdog — Yankees manager Aaron Boone said months ago that Luke Voit has a “leg up” on Bird for the first base job — it’s fair to assume the front office hopes Bird, who was once viewed as the team’s slugging first baseman of the future, can reclaim the starting role and revitalize his career. 

In a pair of simulated games Thursday morning in Tampa, Bird faced two members of the Yankees’ starting rotation — Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton — and walked away with a sense of optimism.   He first crushed a home run off the right-hander Tanaka, and then drilled a single to left against the southpaw Paxton. 

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Bird told reporters Thursday.  “I just want to play.  I know I have to play, we can talk all day, but I have to play, so that’s one step closer to playing at game speed.”

Bird has a lot on his plate, and little time to prove that he can contribute at the major league level on a regular basis.

Since bursting onto the scene in late 2015, Bird has dealt with a slew of injuries and slumps.  He missed all of the 2016 season recovering from shoulder surgery, and in 2017, he was limited to just 48 games due to a bone bruise in his right ankle. 

Last year, Bird suffered another right ankle injury that ultimately required surgery and recovery time.  By late August, he was no longer a fixture in the Yankees’ lineup.  The 28-year-old Voit, who was acquired in a trade with the Cardinals, became a Shane Spencer-esque spark plug by hitting .333 with 14 homers and 33 RBI in 39 games.  

In 82 regular season games, Bird hit a measly .199 with 11 home runs, and was left off the postseason roster. 

Bird said he gained roughly 20 pounds during the winter.  And, to no one’s surprise, he benefited from a rehab-free offseason.  

“I just got back to where I needed to be to get my swing off,” Bird said Thursday.  “The last two weeks, I’ve been looking forward to seeing some live pitching because it gets to a point where taking BP and hitting in the cage, you need to see a live pitch to kind of figure out where you’re at.  Then you can figure out, this is what I need to work on.  That was nice today to kind of get a feel for that.”

Added Boone: “The one thing about Greg, even last year when he was struggling at its most, he controls the strike zone.  His first at-bats today, that was apparent and then we saw him impact the ball as well.”

On Friday, Boone told reporters that he currently sees newly acquired infielder DJ LeMahieu as the backup first baseman, which likely means the loser of the spring battle between Bird and Voit will start the regular season in Triple-A.

If you want to connect with Tom Hanslin, email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @tomhanslin.