For Yankees, loss of Mark Teixeira hurts, but it won't end their season
The Yankees never expected to have Mark Teixeira, who fouled a ball off his right leg on Aug. 17 and has missed all but one of 21 games since, back for this weekend’s four-game showdown against the first-place Blue Jays. Now they know they won’t have him back for the rematch in Toronto two weeks from now either, or for the playoffs. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told the media on Friday that an MRI found a fracture in Teixeira’s leg that will require three months to heal, ruling him out for the rest of the season.
The Yankees’ most valuable player to this point in the season, Teixeira had been enjoying a comeback season in the plate that resulted in a now-final line of .255/.357/.548 with 31 home runs and 79 RBIs. The homer total is his highest since 2011, the slugging percentage is his best since his first season with the Yankees in '09, and the resulting OPS+ of 148 is his best since his walk year of '08, split between the Braves and Angels. However, for the fourth straight season, the now-35-year-old Teixeira has been limited to fewer than 125 games by injury (he has averaged 93 games per season over the last four years, a figure dragged down by missing all but 15 games of '13 with a re-occurring wrist injury).
This is undeniably a big blow to the Yankees’ hopes of overcoming the Blue Jays to win the American League East, but it’s not so large of a blow that it should significantly alter their chances of making the playoffs at all. Not only do the Yankees have a 5 1/2-game lead over the third-place team in the wild-card race with 24 games left to play entering Friday’s action, but they also have a capable replacement in 22-year-old rookie Greg Bird, who is already in his fourth week as Teixeira’s full-time replacement at first base.
The Yankees' fourth-best prospect coming into the season according to Baseball America, Bird hit .277/.356/.469 in 83 games split between Double and Triple A this season before being called up four days before Teixeira suffered his injury and has hit .241/.319/.458 with five home runs in 24 major league games since. Those aren’t jaw-dropping numbers, but, provided he can counter the league’s adjustments to him, Bird has 30-homer potential and the all-around bat skills—including the ability to hit fellow lefties—to be at least league average at first base (the average major league first baseman has hit .262/.338/.453 this season).
Of course, given Bird’s high strikeout rate, there’s also the possibility that the league will exploit his weaknesses and he will struggle for the remainder of the season. Still, the Yankees have thus far played 20 games with Bird in the lineup and Teixeira out of it and gone 12–8 in those games, a .600 winning percentage. That record has more to do with strong performances elsewhere on the team, but it’s clear that the loss of Teixeira has not hindered the Yankees that badly.
The Yankees could feel the loss of Teixeira more acutely in short, high-value series against elite opponents, such as their remaining games with Toronto and the playoffs. However, it’s worth noting that Teixeira has not been a very good postseason hitter in his career, batting just .222/.339/.320 in 183 playoff plate appearances, including a .180/.282/.311 line in 71 PA in New York's championship season of 2009, during which his walk-off home run in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Twins was one of the more memorable moments. Bird is as capable of Teixeira of delivering a random blow like that one. In fact, it could be that the Yankees wind up missing Teixeira’s glove more than his bat from here on out: Bird is nothing special at first base, while Teixeira, despite reduced range, still has terrific hands, reactions and game awareness in the field.
There’s also an emotional component to consider here. Given Toronto’s surge and the Yankees’ lingering second-place position (they have there since Aug. 25, failing to as much pull into a tie with Toronto in the interim, and enter this weekend’s series down 1 1/2 games), the loss of a key player like Teixeira could make the task of catching Toronto seem even more daunting than it actually is. On top of that, Teixeira is one of just four players remaining from New York’s last championship team; the others are Brett Gardner, who was a 25-year-old backup that season, CC Sabathia, who has struggled, and Alex Rodriguez, whose credibility issues are well-established. Teixeira will remain with the team, but he will no longer be able to fulfill his leadership role with his play on the field. That may be a minor consideration compared to the difference between Teixeira and Bird on the field, and is certainly one that cannot be objectively measured, but it could impact the team’s confidence, which is a crucial element in a close pennant race. Just ask the Nationals.