Pirela returns to prospect relevance

Welcoming back CC Sabathia
Joba strikes out two in latest minor league rehab appearance

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.

Welcoming back CC Sabathia
Joba strikes out two in latest minor league rehab appearance
  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    Great write-up.

    I think too many people get caught up in minor league numbers and don’t realize that it really is just about development. There is nothing wrong with repeating a level, when needed. Unfortunately, the Yankees are using SWB as a way station for washed up major leaguers and there is no room to promote the players that have developed.

    • jjyank

      Isn’t that what a lot of teams do though? MLB vets provide better depth in a lot of scenarios, you can’t have nothing put prospects at AAA.

      • Ted Nelson

        Yes, it absolutely is. Or other teams wish it was. It’s a great thing to have depth. Not every team can convince so many legit vets to sign, though.

        And what prospects have been blocked by vets? None that I can think of. If the Yankees want to promote someone from AA, there is plenty of room. Send a Cole Garner down or something.


          You think the yanks have it easier to sign these scrap heap vets? I disagree totally.. They wanna play and get back in the big show, and when u have the team the yanks don, its kinda hard to get ur chance.. Just ask Jack Cust.lol COuld u imagine if Jack Cust was in Tampa’s Farm system right now? He’d be batting 4th for about a month now..lol The Yanks are just more interested in those type players then most teams, or at least a abundance of em.. It seems every time a player gets let go , the yanks are signing em to a minor league deal..

          • Robinson Tilapia

            Struggling to find a point here.

        • Carl LaFong

          Actually, I think Cole Garner is a really good ballplayer who should be playing somewhere in the big leagues. He’s got that rep. as a 4A player but he’s good enough to platoon & be a valuable guy on a good team. He was hurt at the beginning of the year & his #’s were horse spit, but he’s put up real good #’s since then.

    • RetroRob

      I’ve wondered about that too, but from what I’ve been told it’s not just the Yankees; it’s a trend among all MLB teams. AA has become much more the developing ground than it used to be, with AAA often being skipped, or used for a quick month of time, or mostly used as a shuttle spot for kids once it’s determined they can help the big league club but are getting moved back and forth. So AAA is basically used as an extension of the MLB roster, with the DeWayne Wise’s and Chris Dickerson types there as depth, as well as some MLB-ready prospects who are a phone call away.

      Overall, the Yankees will need to move some players. Eventually prospects either have to make the MLB club, or they need to be moved. CoJo, Adams and Pirela are three young players converging on one open spot on the AAA roster, and a totally unopen spot on the MLB roster. Yet the Yankees are going to want to keep them as long as possible until the Cano situation is settled.

  • yooboo

    Thank you for this very informative article.

    • yooboo

      Jim Paredes plays 2b for Astros’ AAA team. Hopefully, it helps boost Pirela’s value somewhat.

    • JD

      Totally agree. I wish we had more info like this article. This kid has got to be in the same category as adams and cojo. Maybe something special

      • http://www.riveraveblues.com Eric Schultz

        Thanks, I’ll try to do more posts like this one.

  • forensic

    Turf war: Axisa vs. Schultz!

    But seriously, how does being an international signee affect his minor league free agency, being that this is his 6th year in the system? How much longer does he have?

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Eric Schultz

      Haha, this is no turf war. Mike’s still the prospect king in these parts.

      As for Pirela, I’m pretty sure he will have to be added to the 40-man roster to avoid losing him to free agency, but I’ll double-check that.

      • yooboo

        Well, you win my vote. boo.

        Obviously, you can’t repeat anything what Mike has written so you bring unknown stuffs into a balance. That is good.

        • Scout

          You both do a terrific job with the prospect information. Many thanks!

    • yooboo

      no difference. 7 years in minor league to be qualified.

      • forensic

        Ok, it’s weird though because shouldn’t he have been rule 5 eligible last year or on the 40 man right now? Or was he eligible and I just forgot?

        • yooboo

          I think he has been rule 5 eligible but he is not as prolific player like Betances or Laird. It is easy to overlook.


          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Eric Schultz

            Yeah, I think he was Rule 5 eligible this past offseason, but nobody took him (which makes sense, because he was pretty mediocre over the previous couple of seasons).

            • yooboo

              I am still uncertain whether or not Pirela should be added to 40 man roster with Adams and Joseph aboard.

              • yooboo

                for 2013 season.

              • RetroRob

                If they’re not going to protect him then they should trade him. With the year he’s having and two full years at AAA, he’ll be snapped up. Related to what I was saying above, the Yankees may have to place a bet on two of the three until the Cano situation is settled, and move the other. This is where the talent evaluators come into play. We’ve been hearing more about CoJo and Adams, but perhaps Pirela is the better prospect now. Have no idea.

          • yooboo

            it was for 2010’s 5 draft eligibility.

  • Reggie C.

    Six years in the system and it finally appears that something has clicked at the plate that its now feasible that Pirela could stick on the ML roster.

    IMO that’s a success story! He’s not old for Double A, rather just the right age. I’d keep Pirela in Trenton for the time being to keep working on his defense. Why rock Pirela’s world with the transient world Scranton players now live?

    I hope Pirela’s aware the super-utility job with the NYY is always up for grabs and this kind of play is going to get him traction to get it.

    • jjyank

      Agreed. Let him ride out the year in AA, hopefully allowing him to grow in that utility role and develop some confidence. Start in AAA next year (when they have a home), and maybe mid way through 2013 or 2014, he can take the roll that Nix occupies now.

  • Ted Nelson

    Good write up.

    2B seems like the ideal place for him, or a UTL role. Might even be able to play enough SS to back-up a durable everyday starter there.

  • JohnC

    Maybe Phillies would take him for Victorino

  • Dan

    With his success at 2nd base, do you think it increases the likelihood that we could see Adams or Joseph get traded at the deadline for potential outfield help? Or do you think the Yankees should hold onto their second base prospects in case Cano walks after next season?

    • CS Yankee

      Cano will be resigned with the Yankees without question as they’ll match/beat any other offer.

      • Dan

        I don’t think there is anyway to be completely sure of this. I doubt the Yankees would go over 6 years, and if some team comes up with some insane offer it is definitely possible that he signs elsewhere. Especially with their 2014 budget plan.

      • I am not the droids you’re looking for…

        Like Jeremy Lin.

        Oh, wait.

        No seriously though, I agree that in all likelihood the Yanks resign Cano. But if the Dodgers offer 10/$200mm I could see them letting him walk. And they should at that price…

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Eric Schultz

      I would imagine one or two of these guys will be trade bait, but I don’t see anything drastic happening until the Cano situation is cleared up.

  • tyrone sharpton

    finally, RAB finds a great writer other than the original 3. bravo, eric

  • Robinson Tilapia

    This is awesome, Eric. Just stellar writing. Keep up the great work.

  • MattG

    I liked the article too, don’t get me wrong, but I cringed a little when I read this sentence:

    “This might indicate that his defensive problems were primarily related to throwing…”

    And shuddered mightily on this one:

    “The move from shortstop may also have helped Pirela’s offense, perhaps by letting him play positions where he is more comfortable.”

    Much like Hughes’s performance the other day, those were two notable mistakes in what was otherwise a masterpiece.

    • Cliff

      What are the mistakes?

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Eric Schultz

      Mistakes may be a little harsh, but they were worded a little awkwardly. Fair criticism.

      • Carl LaFong

        “Even though Pirela is never going to be a star and unlikely to be a starter for the Yankees . . . ”

        Great article, Eric. I do, however, take issue w/the above sentence, as no one knows what Pirela will become in the future & any thoughts on what may or may not happen w/this kid way too speculative. His Mgr. Tony Franklin says the kid made big adjustments during the 2011 season & progressed, he gets seriously beaned early this year, & when he comes back, he’s still mashing.

        I’d say he’s a bonafide prospect & @ 22 years old, maybe he can become a starter &/or a star, for the Yankees or some other club. The whole point of development is that sometimes something kicks in & a player once flying under the radar turns into Mariano Rivera. Report the facts, talk w/those who can offer insight, but let the players & what they accomplish determine the outcome.

  • Bill Since 49

    This brings up the question we must all be asking. Who is in the minors capable of taking over SS once Jeter retires? I don’t see anyone who looks anywhere close to what is needed.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Eric Schultz

      Nobody really. Nunez or Pirela seem to be the only candidates at the upper levels, though both are quite erratic defensively. At the lower levels, Cito Culver is probably the best bet at present, but he is years away and hasn’t really hit at any level. Maybe Austin Aune in the GCL? Realistically, the next Yankee shortstop is probably not in the organization right now.