After signing for a $300,000 bonus as a 16 year-old out of Venezuela, it feels like Jose Pirela has been in the Yankees system forever. At the time of his signing, Pirela was considered to be a player with a good chance of sticking at shortstop, his natural position, and projected to be at least average in all five tools (speed, hitting, power, arm, defense). He made his debut at age 17 in the Dominican Summer League, and put together an impressive season. Pirela posted a .746 OPS, flashing impressive plate discipline (34 walks against 36 strikeouts), a little power (4 homers), and decent basestealing ability (15 steals vs. 5 CS). While these were not eye-popping numbers, that kind of production from a 6-figure bonus baby with a chance to stick at shortstop was nothing to sneeze at, and put Pirela on the radar as a prospect to watch.
The next few seasons were up and down for Pirela, as he made his stateside debut at 18 in the Gulf Coast League. However, he struggled offensively, managing an OPS above .700 just once across his next 4 minor league seasons. Despite the weak offensive performance, the Yankees continued to advance Pirela one level every season, leading him to Trenton in 2011, at the age of 21. The 2011 season was an erratic one for Pirela on both sides of the ball. On defense, he committed a league-high 39 errors (37 of them came while playing shortstop), and on offense he posted an anemic .239/.292/.353 line. This was certainly a low point for Pirela’s prospect status, as neither his offense nor his defense looked capable of becoming major league quality.
This season, Pirela is back with Trenton at age 22, and his season got off to an inauspicious start. On April 11, Pirela was beaned by a fastball from Chris Martin of the Portland Seadogs, causing Pirela to miss six weeks due to concussion symptoms. As The Trentonian‘s Josh Norris described in a June 10 story, when Pirela came back from the injury, he was a different player. According to manager Tony Franklin, Norris wrote, Pirela began making adjustments in the second half of 2011, and carried over the positive momentum into 2012. After struggling mightily at shortstop last season, Pirela was given the opportunity to play more of a utility role, getting playing time at 2nd base, 3rd base, and left field. While he has seven errors in 11 games at 3rd base, he has only one in 23 games at 2nd base and none in 19 games in the outfield. This might indicate that his defensive problems were primarily related to throwing, and switching to 2nd base (and outfield) alleviated some of those issues.
The move from shortstop may also have helped Pirela’s offense, perhaps by letting him play positions where he is more comfortable. After weak offensive production throughout his career throughout his career, Pirela began hitting the ball with more authority in 2012. On the season, he is hitting .322/.390/.503 with seven homers (one short of his career high for a season). He has also cut his strikeout rate and improved his walk rate, both encouraging trends. Yes he is repeating the league, and yes at 22 he is not that young for the level, but an .893 OPS from a middle infielder in a pitcher-friendly park and league is impressive any way you slice it.
Prior to this season, Pirela had pretty much fallen off the prospect radar. He was not on Mike’s top 30 prospects list (or any other organizational list, to my knowledge). If Pirela continues to hit like he has so far in 2012 (and sustains this production whenever he hits AAA), we will probably have to start thinking of him as a prospect again. Definitely not as a top-tier guy, but as a back-end prospect who has a shot at making the major leagues at some point. It will be interesting to see how the Yankees handle Pirela going forward. His value would be greatest if he could stick at shortstop full-time, but his usage this season may indicate that this ship may have sailed.
Pirela may be most valuable as an everyday second baseman, but that is a pretty stacked position for the Yankees at the upper levels, with Robinson Cano in the majors, Corban Joseph in AAA, and David Adams in AA. Nonetheless, like Ronnier Mustelier in AAA, Pirela could still have substantial value in a utility role, playing 2nd, 3rd, and the outfield (and probably handling shortstop in an emergency if necessary). Unlike the 27 year-old Mustelier, Pirela likely still has some room for development and improvement. He could also have some value as a trade chip for a complementary piece (like the inclusion of Jimmy Paredes in the Lance Berkman trade in 2010), or as a throw-in with some upside in a deal for a possible outfield starter. Even though Pirela is never going to be a star and unlikely to be a starter for the Yankees, he may still have some value in the right scenario. The improvements that Pirela has made this season will definitely increase that value.