When Greg Bird gathered his equipment, getting a grip on his batting helmet, bat, batting gloves and a baseball proved a bit elusive. When he dropped a glove, he bent over to pick it up. As he did, he dropped a ball.
After missing the entire 2016 season because of shoulder surgery, Bird is in the Arizona Fall League, getting reacquainted with the rhythms and routines of playing baseball again.
“I’m just getting comfortable again, getting used to the every day thing again,” he said. “Because it takes some getting used to, playing again, seeing where I’m at. I didn’t play for a long time, really a year, from the time we played our last game until the time we got out here.”
Bird is among a large contingent of New York Yankees playing for the Scottsdale Scorpions, who are part of the seven-week league that is generally reserved for some of the top prospects in baseball, regardless of which major league team they belong to. The league allows the players, and scouts, to see how they stack up against the best of the best.
But for Bird, a 24-year-old first baseman, and another top Yankees prospect, 22-year-old pitcher James Kaprielian, the league, which concludes on Nov. 19, is an opportunity to get something out of what has been a mostly lost year and get their legs underneath them for 2017.
Kaprielian, the 16th overall pick in the 2015 draft, made just three starts last season for Class A Tampa before a strained flexor tendon in his right forearm sidelined him for the season.
“I take my vitamins every day, and I’m 100 percent healthy,” Kaprielian said. “No problems in the arm. Haven’t had a problem since I picked up the baseball again.”
If the goals for Bird and Kaprielian in this league are modest, their progress in Peoria is still important to the Yankees in the near term. After all, first base in the Bronx next season ostensibly belongs to Bird. But he needs to prove in spring training that his debut late in the 2015 season — when he hit 11 home runs, drove in 31 runs and had a .871 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over the final 46 games — was not a mirage.
Kaprielian, meanwhile, will begin the 2017 season back at Class A Tampa. But with so many questions about the Yankees’ starting rotation, and with the way he has pitched when healthy, general manager Brian Cashman did not dismiss the possibility that he could make it to the major leagues at some point next year.
“He’s got great ability, and any player that’s got great ability and performance, they usually move quicker than the norm,” said Cashman, who noted that the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians called on young, untested pitchers — Jose Urias and Ryan Merritt — to start games during the recent postseason.
Cashman added: “I can’t tell you that’s going to be him or not. Teams do what they have to do, and if a need arises, who’s the best for the job and who’s earned the opportunity? If Kap puts himself in that position, we’ll make that call.”
As Kaprielian sat and watched the Yankees go through young pitchers in 2016 — Luis Severino, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green and Luis Cessa ended up in the rotation — he wondered what might have been had he not been injured.
“It’s always something in the back of your head,” Kaprielian said. “I want to be a big-leaguer, and I want to pitch for the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and I want to do what I can to contribute and help the team win.”
Kaprielian made his sixth Arizona Fall League start Thursday, his fastball regularly ticking 96 mph and his changeup and breaking pitches keeping hitters largely off balance. His one big mistake came after the New York Mets’ Tim Tebow, a Scorpions teammate, overran a routine fly with two out in the first inning. The next batter, Cincinnati Reds prospect Brandon Dixon, belted a home run over the left-field wall.
Kaprielian was more upset with himself for losing his concentration than he was with Tebow for missing the ball. Though Kaprielian has struck out just under one hitter per inning, he has given up four home runs in his last 13 1/3 innings.
“It’s tough because baseball is such a results-based game, and I think the biggest thing for me right now is the test of whether my arm is going to make it through every five days or every six days, whatever it is,” said Kaprielian, who will have one more start. “That’s the most positive thing. I’ll have a short time to shut it down, but once spring training rolls around we’ll be ready to go.”
Kaprielian will meet soon with minor league pitching coordinator Scott Aldred and pitching coach Larry Rothschild to go over an offseason plan, but Cashman said he would be on an innings limit next season.
Cashman declined to say what the limits would be because of the uproar that ensued when the Yankees detailed how their once-top pitching prospect Joba Chamberlain would be used after his rapid ascent in 2007.
“It created such a stupid firestorm of ignorance that blew back, which was, ‘What are they doing?’” Cashman said. “We were doing the same thing everybody does. We were just very honest and open about it, and it created T-shirts and stupidity, so now I’m, like, you know what: I’m not going to put ourselves back in that position. I’m just not going to invite that type of scrutiny and allow people to dissect whether that innings limit is the right one or not.”
Bird’s arm has been carefully protected as well. The surgery was on his right (throwing) shoulder, and he has played here only as the designated hitter. On Wednesday, he worked on throwing to bases with Joe Espada, the Yankees’ infield coach, and planned to do similar work Friday.
At the plate, Bird was hitting only .179, even with a pair of hits Thursday — a single he looped into right-center field and a bunt he pushed toward third base against a shift.
The numbers pale to those he posted two years ago, when he was the most valuable player in this league.
“The last time, I was still trying to prove I could play in the big leagues,” Bird said. “This time, I’m trying to get healthy and be ready to play in the big leagues. For me, this is about trying to get ready for spring training and the season and seeing what I need to work on going into the offseason. Obviously, you want to do well, but this isn’t about the numbers. It’s about feeling good and kind of knowing where I stand going into spring training. I’m happy with what I’ve done. I’m right where I need to be.”