If there’s one critical aspect missing from the Toronto Blue Jays’ offence, it’s balance. Filled with several quality right-handers, this line-up would greatly benefit from adding a productive lefty to the mix, and first baseman Greg Bird seems to be emerging into exactly that.
Yes, this is the same Bird who took the baseball world by storm as a rookie in 2015, where he slugged 11 home runs and slashed .261/.343/.529 in just 46 games with the New York Yankees. This is also the same player that’s been plagued by numerous injuries throughout his career, which derailed his tenure in the Bronx.
Between a torn labrum, bone spurs and plantar fasciitis, the 29-year-old has been through it all while attempting to stick in the majors. Having said that, now that he’s finally healthy, his dream could finally become a realistic possibility again.
When Bird initially signed a minor-league deal with Toronto earlier this off-season, not much was made of this move other than that management was taking a flyer on a once productive left-handed slugger. But with the veteran hitter looking to prove himself, he’s since garnered plenty of attention this spring.
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Thus far, Bird has appeared in eight games with the Blue Jays, earning 23 plate appearances. While this isn’t a large sample size, the 6’4″ first baseman has certainly made the most of his opportunities, as he’s performed to a stellar .333/.478/.722 slashing line.
Digging deeper, the former highly-touted Yankees prospect has regained his hitting stroke once again, allowing him to serve as a valuable run producer. In total, two of his six total hits have left the yard, helping him drive in six RBIs.
Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
In just a short time, Bird has impressed many folks with his ability to hit for power, resulting in a .478 SLG percentage and a .389 ISO. Paired with these outstanding results, he’s also excelled at generating hard contact this spring, where he’s produced a 91.1 m.p.h. average exit velocity.
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Granted, similar to every other spring training, these metrics must be taken with a grain of salt as most pitchers are more focused on reaching their pitch counts than anything else.
With regards to Bird’s performance, it’s important to note that the majority of his success has occurred against four-seamers – an offering he’s previously struggled against in the majors. This time around, however, it’s been a key source that’s led to his rejuvenation with the Blue Jays, classifying him as an effective fastball hitter.
Proving as such, the former fifth-round selection has hit both of his home runs and slashed .400/.625/1.000 against four-seamers in spring competition – including this two-run shot off Yankees pitcher Reggie McClain that came off the bat at 104.9 m.p.h.
As a left-handed batter, one of your main tasks is creating damage against right-handed pitchers, which Bird has done. Not only has he proven effective while facing righties, but he’s also been relatively successful against lefties, too.
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Case in point, the veteran slugger recorded his first round-tripper of the spring with a left-hander on the mound. Back on Mar. 20 – Bird’s third contest with the Blue Jays – shortly stepping into the batter’s box against Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Sam Howard, he connected on a 91.8 m.p.h. heater, sending it over the wall in left-centre.
Just like his second home run of the spring, this one also featured an exit velocity near 105 m.p.h. (officially 104.8 m.p.h.).
Providing another example in Monday’s 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves, Bird came to the plate with two runners on base and left-hander Tyler Matzek on the mound. Wasting little time to make an impact, he slapped a low-90s fastball to the opposite field, registering an RBI single.
When Bird first arrived to the majors, he largely struggled to remain disciplined at the plate, resulting in a 29.8 per cent strikeout rate. Now, almost seven years later, he’s become far more effective at limiting his swing and miss totals while also generating a considerable amount of walks.
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Across his 23 plate appearances, the Memphis, Tennessee, native has drawn five walks and has only struck out one so far. For someone looking to earn a roster spot, this is certainly the way to do it.
Could this stretch simply be a spring-training surge from Bird? Perhaps, although based on his results from last season, it appears he’s picking up right where he left off with the Albuquerque Isotopes – Colorado’s triple-A affiliate.
Enjoying a healthy 2021 campaign, the former Grandview HS product logged 461 plate appearances in 112 games, posting 27 home runs – the most he’s ever recorded at any level – 91 RBIs and a .267/.362/.532 slashing line.
Additionally, he also created a .265 ISO, .373 wOBA, 12.6 per cent walk rate, 23.0 per cent strikeout rate and a 117 wRC+ score during that same span.
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As a non-roster invitee, Bird would need to be added to Toronto’s 40-man roster to break camp with the team. Thanks to the Matt Chapman trade, which opened two additional spots, no separate moves would be required to feature him on their Opening Day roster.
With little competition behind him, at this point, Bird likely figures to head north of the border when the Blue Jays travel home ahead of their Apr. 8 season opener against the Texas Rangers. Though he’d be destined for a bench role, the lefty first baseman could provide some upside in that capacity.
Presuming the team carries four bench players, two of those spots are probably marked for a pair of lefty hitters, Bird and Raimel Tapia. The other two positions are expected to be filled by either Cavan Biggio or Santiago Espinal – which either one isn’t playing – along with a third catcher, likely Reese McGuire.
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Amongst this group, Bird can provide some power off the bench whenever a difficult matchup against a right-hander arises. Whether that’s as an occasional replacement at first base, the designated hitter spot or as a late-game pinch hitter, he can help balance this right-handed heavy line-up.
All that’ll be asked of him is to perform effectively against righties. Everything else that transpires will be icing on the cake, both offensively and defensively.
Considering prospect Spencer Horwitz – who’s a lefty slugger that’s shined in his own right this spring – doesn’t appear far away from his major league debut, Bird could simply be utilized as a stopgap until that time comes.
For now, the only obstacle that could prevent him from opening this season with the Blue Jays is his health, or a lack thereof.
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