ATLANTA (AP) — Oft-injured New York Yankees first baseman Greg Bird will need surgery on his ailing right ankle and could be sidelined for nearly two months.
The Yankees learned of the setback Monday while in Atlanta for their final exhibition of spring training, three days before the season opener at Toronto.
“Obviously, we were hoping it was going to be a shorter-term thing,” said first-year manager Aaron Boone, who took over a team that reached Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. “But we feel like we got some answers. We feel like we know what the surgery’s going to accomplish.”
Bird will have surgery will remove a small broken spur on the outside of the right ankle. Dr. Martin O’Malley is scheduled to operate Tuesday at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
The slugger is expected to be out for six-to-eight weeks.
“Hopefully this is something he will now put behind him for good,” Boone said. “We feel pretty good that the surgery is fairly minor and they’re going to go in and correct the problem. Then he should be good to go.”
Tyler Austin, who had been slated to start the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, will likely get the bulk of the playing time at first base in Bird’s absence. There also will be games when Neil Walker shifts over from second base to first.
Austin is looking forward to the opportunity. The 26-year-old hit consecutive home runs with Aaron Judge in their first major league plate appearances two years ago but has played a total of 51 games with the Yankees over the last two seasons, hitting .236 with seven homers and 20 RBIs.
“I’m just excited to be part of this team,” Austin said “You never want to see a guy go down. But I believe we have the pieces in here to make up for what is lost when he’s out. I think that between Neil and I, we can make some special things happen.”
The 25-year-old Bird has been promising yet perplexing since his big league debut in 2015, when he came up from the minors and had 11 homers and 31 RBIs in 46 games.
He missed 2016 after surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Last year, Bird hit .451 with eight homers in spring training but fouled a ball off his right ankle on March 30, started the season 6 for 60 and went on the disabled list May 2.
When the foot did not improve, O’Malley operated July 18 to remove a bone in the ankle.
Bird returned Aug. 26 and hit .253 with eight homers and 25 RBIs in 29 games, then batted .241 three homers and six RBIs in 13 playoff games. Most notably, he homered off Andrew Miller to account for the lone run in a 1-0 victory over Cleveland in Game 3 of the AL Division Series.
Bird struggled this spring training, hitting just .154 in 52 at-bats with one homer, one double and four RBIs.
In retrospect, Boone said, the player may have been favoring the ankle, though the team did not realize there was a problem until the closing days of spring training.
“I think it’s fair that it was a contributor to him not really clicking yet,” the manager said.
Boone said he’s confident Austin can fill the void at first. He hit .227 with four homers in spring training.
“We feel like he’s a really good player,” Boone said. “Tyler Austin is ready for this opportunity. He was just blocked by Greg Bird.”
The Yankees have some flexibility on the right side of the infield with Walker able to play both first and second base. With second baseman Tyler Wade also in the mix, Boone feels like he has three players for two positions.
Austin is a right-handed hitter, Wade a lefty and Walker a switch-hitter.
“We’ll play the match-up game pretty much each and every day.” Boone said. “You’ll see different combinations with Walker at first and Wade at second, Austin at first and Walker at second. We feel good about it. We’re certainly going to miss Greg, but we feel good about what we can do from a matchup standpoint with those guys.”
While the loss of Bird casts a bit of a pall over the opener, Boone said he’s trying to think long term.
“In the grand scheme of things,” the manager said, “hopefully we do look back and it’s a short-term bump in the road and we can get him back for good.”
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