First Baseman Is Almost Done With His Minor League Rehab Assignment, But Austin's Play May Alter His Role

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Greg Bird may soon know exactly how Brandon Drury is feeling these days.

Expected to be the Yankees’ starting first baseman this season, Bird has yet to play in a game due to an ankle injury that required surgery. And even though all signs seems to indicate he’s healthy as he works his way through a minor league rehab assignment, there is no guarantee he’ll be penciled into the lineup when he returns sometime this weekend.

He can blame Tyler Austin for that.

“We will see how it plays out and matchups and stuff,” manager Aaron Boone said before the Yankees’ 6-4 loss to the Texas Rangers on Tuesday night. “Tyler [Austin] has put himself in a very good position and has had a big hand in us winning games.”

Tyler Austin

The Yankees’ Tyler Austin, left, celebrates his two-run home run with Austin Romine during the fifth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on May 20, 2018. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Austin likely won’t win a batting title or be a well-rounded offensive player any time soon, but he has plenty of power and makes the most of his at-bats. He’s currently hitting just .238, but has eight home runs and 23 RBIs in just 101 at-bats. Though the Yankee’ top run-producers, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Didi Gregorius, have more homers and RBIs than Austin, all of their stats are comparable. What’s more, the latter three have 70, 78 and 61 more at-bats, respectively.

Worst-case scenario, a platoon of Bird and Austin, who are both 25, could be on the menu for the foreseeable future given the latter’s .293 average, .362 on-base percentage and .996 OPS this season against left-handers. The lefty-swinging Bird, on the other hand, is only a .227 career hitter at this point, which includes a somewhat surprising .218 mark against right-handers.

Austin has also played a very good first base, making just one error in 182 chances.

Bird’s best chance to re-establish himself as the everyday first baseman is to prove he can be that lefty bat that breaks up the righty swinging trio of Judge, Stanton and catcher Gary Sanchez. That would also allow Boone to move Gregorius down in the lineup, a decision that could take some pressure off the struggling shortstop.

“It depends on our lineup that day and matchups. I could say there is a chance he could be in that spot,” Boone said of Bird batting third. “I like to split up our lefties and it depends on our opponent and not only the starting pitcher that day but how we evaluate their bullpen based on potential matchups we could see late in the game.”

Drury, who opened the season as the starter at third base but was sidelined due to a problem with migraines, also appears to be healthy, but is stuck down at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar keeps hammering the baseball and playing better-than-expected defense.

Andujar currently leads the team with a .285 average — rookie sensation Gleyber Torres is hitting .330 but doesn’t yet have enough at-bats to qualify — and belted his fifth homer during Tuesday’s loss.

The Yankees, of course, aren’t complaining about any of these “problems.” Having this much quality depth is a good thing and a huge reason why they are 31-14 and just a half-game behind Boston for the best record in the majors.