By George A. King III
TAMPA — Two of the Yankees’ biggest question marks were on display early Monday morning in simulated-game action at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
In the scope of a big league season, a simulated game in February played at a time when the dew hasn’t left the grass means very little — unless you are Greg Bird or Aaron Judge.
For Bird, the action provided a chance to experience the feel for hitting after shoulder surgery last February cost the sweet-swinging left-handed hitter the season. For Judge, it was more at-bats to get comfortable hitting without the exaggerated leg kick he had used previously. The idea is to cut down on the strikeouts that plagued his brief time in the majors last season.
And with the exhibition schedule opening Friday against the Phillies at GMS — six days after the first full workout — any at-bats against real pitchers help.
The first-base job is Bird’s to lose and Hal Steinbrenner is looking for Judge to be the starting right fielder.
After battling through a cranky right shoulder in 2015 when he hit .261 with 11 homers, 31 RBIs and posted a .871 OPS in 46 games, the 24-year-old Bird is pleased with the results of his 2016 surgery.
“It wasn’t structurally right and I had to figure out how to work through that,’’ Bird said. “Now I am back to where I want to be, I can feel what I want to feel.’’
Bird faced Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa and Giovanny Gallegos and homered to right off the right-handed Gallegos. Judge doubled off Mitchell.
Bird said he is encouraged by how his shoulder feels with the bat moving through the zone, but there is another sign of comfort: throwing.
“It feels like I have something behind the ball,’’ Bird said. “Not that I didn’t, but it’s nice to go out and throw the ball again.’’
Bird was limited to DH duties in the Arizona Fall League as a precaution against reinjuring the shoulder. In 17 games for Scottsdale, he batted .215 (14-for-65) with a homer, 10 RBIs and a .700 OPS.
Until Chris Carter was signed to a one-year deal worth $3.5 million shortly before camp opened, Bird was in line to be the everyday first baseman. In 2015 he wasn’t overmatched by lefties, batting .238 (10-for-42) with two homers and seven RBIs. He batted .270 with nine homers and 24 RBIs versus righties.
Some look at Carter, a right-handed hitter who led the NL in homers last season with 41 for Milwaukee, as insurance against Bird not playing well or getting hurt. Others look at Carter and see a right-handed power bat against lefties.
Bird said he sees Carter as a player who can help the Yankees and serve as a tutor.
“It’s exciting. We got a good bat, someone I can learn from,’’ Bird said of the 30-year-old Carter. “For me, coming into camp I have to prove that I am healthy and get used to playing again. I have enough on my plate. It’s good for us. I am fighting to prove I am healthy and can play. I am not fighting against anyone in particular. I want to be the best possible player I can be.’’
And if that means facing Mitchell, whose stuff is above average and will land him either in the rotation or bullpen, so be it.