Greg Bird Will Eventually Return, but Garrett Cooper Could Solve the Yankees' First Base Problems
First base has been an issue all season long for the New York Yankees, and it is expected the club will use the trade deadline this month to shore up that position with the team surprisingly in the thick of the American League wild card race.
In spring training, Greg Bird, the young left-handed hitter with a sweet swing, fouled a ball off his ankle and has missed virtually the entire season so far. He is reportedly now taking batting practice as he moves closer to starting a rehab assignment and, if all goes well, the team hopes to have him in the starting lineup before the year is out. (Update: General manager Brian Cashman said Friday that Bird may require surgery on the ankle, which would keep him out an additional six to eight weeks.)
Bird's absence has been a huge problem for the Bronx Bombers. Chris Carter, a deeply flawed hitter who managed to hit 40 home runs last season for the Milwaukee Brewers, was released by the team a few weeks ago after hitting .201/.284/.370. And among American League teams, only one other squad, the Los Angeles Angels, has a lower fWAR among first basemen so far this season (-1.2).
If the Yankees are going to contend, they need to shore up first base, and on Thursday, they made a trade that could potentially do that, acquiring 26-year-old minor leaguer Garrett Cooper from the Brewers for left-handed reliever Tyler Webb. Cooper is having an outstanding season for AAA Colorado Springs, batting .366/.428/.652 with 17 homers and 82 RBIs in 75 games. He is walking in 10.3% of his plate appearances and striking out in just 15.0%, with a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 171.
That is phenomenal production at the AAA level and, if he's able to repeat that kind of performance in The Show, it would certainly solve the Yankees' short-term problems at first, and provide insurance against Greg Bird's seemingly constantly injured state.
But some caution is warranted here.
First, Cooper's power numbers are a complete outlier compared to the rest of his minor league career.
That power spike comes out of nowhere, and leads to the second reason we should be suspicious of his ability to replicate these numbers in the big leagues: His age.
It's not unusual to see older prospects like the 26-year-old Cooper suddenly start to perform well against younger competition. The fact he hasn't been able to crack the Majors before now leads one to believe that Cooper is simply taking advantage of hitting against the kids.
The third reason for skepticism is the state in which he plays: Colorado. We all know what kind of effect playing in the thin air of Coors Field can have on offensive numbers, and Colorado Springs, home of the Sky Sox, is similar. These numbers could be inflated based on the home park in which Cooper has played this season -- although, he didn't hit for power last season in 139 plate appearances there, another reason for concern.
If New York is depending on Bird to come back and give them the offensive boost they need at the position, then this move is probably just fine. But if they truly want to upgrade at that position, regardless of what Bird does, they have some better options.
Yonder Alonso of the Oakland Athletics, Tommy Joseph of the Philadelphia Phillies, Lucas Duda of the New York Mets, Justin Bour of the Miami Marlins, John Jaso of the Pittsburgh Pirates and potentially Matt Adams of the Atlanta Braves, Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants and All-Star Justin Smoak of the Toronto Blue Jays could all be available and offer real stability at first.
The Yankees also have the prospects and payroll muscle to try and blow away the Cincinnati Reds with an offer for Joey Votto, although if the Yankees do like Bird, adding Votto would all but freeze him out of the picture.
It is unlikely Cooper is going to be a star player for New York, and there will (and should) be doubts about his fantasy viability. Career minor league first basemen who haven't sniffed the big leagues at 26 rarely turn into productive big league players.
Just ask Darin Ruf.