This baseball season has often been labeled the “The Year of the Prospect,” and rightly so. The vast collection of young talent is part of one of the most significant youth movements in baseball in the past 25 years. The twin faces of the youth movement are undoubtedly Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, still only 22 and 24, respectively. But they have been joined this season by generational talents such as Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson, Addison Russell, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Kyle Schwarber, Corey Seager and countless others.
In New York alone, the Mets and Yankees have ushered in the debuts of Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Luis Severino and a pair of sweet-swinging 22-year old lefties. Michael Conforto and Greg Bird weren’t supposed to be in the big leagues this season, but in a short few weeks they have both proven to be talented and mature enough to thrive in the midst of pennant races.
The two youngsters were sent to the minors in March with the likely estimated time of arrival at 2016 the earliest. But here they were this past weekend as vital pieces in the middle of the most meaningful regular-season Subway Series in history. Even though it was the first time that each of them participated in a Subway Series game, the two have seen each other before.
“Oh. He’s a great player,” Bird told me about Conforto. “I saw him play in Binghamton this year, just for a series. But everything that I’ve seen and heard is great. Great player and great person.”
Conforto has actually been better than advertised for the Mets, demanding more playing time with every plate appearance. He’s hit for average, gotten on base, hit for power to all fields and even been far better in left-field than the rep that preceded him. Conforto has the pedigree and swing to make you think he’ll be a star for years to come.
“It’s been a whirlwind and so much fun,” Conforto told a few reporters recently in the Mets locker room. “I’m happy to be here and happy to be contributing because that’s all I wanted to do is come up here and be a part of it.”
Both Conforto and Bird have been godsends as the Mets and Yankees enjoy simultaneous pennant races for the first time in nearly a decade. Last night in Toronto, Bird smashed a go-ahead three-run homer in the 10th inning to give the Yankees a 6-4 victory against the Blue Jays and life in the AL East. Bird now has 10 dingers and 28 RBI in 121 at-bats across 34 games — that’s a 162-game pace of 47 HR and 133 RBI. Six of his homers have given the Yankees the lead and his 28 RBIs in 34 games passes Hideki Matsui’s previous franchise rookie mark (26) over same span.
“It’s been a blast,” said Bird, who is slashing .256/.336/.562. “Great group of guys here and being in the pennant race is a lot of fun here.”
When Bird was called up on August 13, it was expected that he would give Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez an occasional breather and supply pop as a left-handed bat off the bench. However, the ever-fragile Teixeira suffered a severe bone bruise on his right leg and appeared in only two games before it was determined that his foot was actually broken. In a lineup that includes Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann, Bird has surprisingly become one of the biggest keys to a postseason push and the veterans have helped push him along.
“They’ve been really welcoming and just helpful on day to day stuff and on the field stuff,” said Bird.
Across town, Conforto has also benefited from the advice of veterans such as David Wright, Curtis Granderson, Daniel Murphy and especially 36-year old outfielder Michael Cuddyer.
“I learn from him everyday,” Conforto said. “Even when I’m sitting on the bench or not directly talking to him, I‘m learning from him and that’s a great thing.”
Conforto was already a polished bat when the Mets selected him with the 10th overall pick last year after a sensational collegiate career at Oregon State. He honed his game on the field during his three years with the Beavers, but he also learned about mental side of things.
“In college we had a mental game guy come in and we’d do his stuff three times a week or so. His big thing was having a routine, being able to take a breath, slow things down and it really clicked for me in college,” said Conforto, who added that the Mets brought in mental game guys during spring training. “I would get really amped up for an at-bat in a big situation and I’d feel like the game was speeding up on me a little bit. That really helped me just calm myself and focus on the job that I had to do and I carried it with me to here.”
The Mets, after initial resistance, summoned Conforto from Double-A with the hope that he could provide a jolt to an offense desperately seeking major league hitters on July 24, and he has been better than anyone could have imagined. He is hitting .284 with a .360 OBP and .532 slugging percentage in 161 plate appearances. He also has six outfield assists which ties him with Washington’s Michael Taylor for most by an NL rookie. He may be a highly touted prospect, but he has had no problem coming up and focusing on the little things.
“It’s not about your average, or hitting home runs or any of that, it’s about moving guys over when you need to, bringing them in when you should and executing when you can,” said Conforto, who has added 8 homers and 23 RBIs. “That’s a really fun brand of baseball to be a part of and everyone is excited for each other and that’s really cool.”
He is playing mainly against righties, but there is no question that he will soon be a full-time, top-notch player.
Meanwhile, Bird has something going for him that Conforto doesn’t: Yankee Stadium’s right-field short porch for which his lefty stroke was created — just ask Robinson Cano, Brian McCann or Mark Teixeira.
“I don’t really look a whole at that. I just look at trying to have quality at-bats and hit the ball hard and wherever it goes is wherever it goes,” Bird said. “I try to take out what I can’t control, just try to not focus on that.”
A left-handed power threat as a catcher at Grandview High School in Aurora, Colorado, Bird took home Player of the Year honors in 2011 after hitting .553 with 12 home runs as a senior. Although he committed to playing at the University of Arkansas, he decided to accept the Yankees’ $1.1 million signing bonus as a fifth-round selection in the 2011 Draft. The chances of Bird sticking as a catcher were slim, and a back injury ultimately moved him permanently over to first base.
“It’s been a good transition, I think,” said Bird, who excelled in last year’s Arizona Fall League. “Definitely something that I’ve made some big strides at though. And I think just getting the experience and the reps. This off-season I worked hard in the weight room and I felt like I got in more athletic shape I guess is kind of the right way to word it, which has helped. But really it’s just getting the experience and kind of learning from your mistakes and improving everyday.”
Bird’s bat, however, has always been where his promise lies. He’s a line-to-line hitter with plate discipline that keeps him from being an all-or-nothing hitter. The Yankees have continued to say how impressed they are with Bird’s slow clock and we’ve already seen Bird hit quite a few moonshots and work plenty of deep counts.
It’s going to be pretty fun watching Bird and Conforto hit line drives all around the city over the next few years. But while Conforto should be a starting outfielder for the Mets next year, there is no guarantee that Bird will find himself in the starting lineup next season, or even in the big leagues for that matter. Somehow, some way, the Yankees need to make sure he gets major league at bats next year, but Bird isn’t worried about that right now.
“I’m not even worried about next year,” Bird insisted. “We’re in a pennant race and my focus is here completely.”