Astros claim Brandon Laird off waivers

Via LoHud, the Astros have claimed Brandon Laird off waivers from the Yankees. New York designated the infielder for assignment when they re-acquired Steve Pearce from (who else?) the Astros earlier this week, so think of it as a straight one-for-one trade.

Laird, 24, hit .254/.307/.414 with 15 homers while repeating Triple-A this season. He’s a .256/.295/.409 career hitter at the level in nearly 1,200 plate appearances, and last season he had four singles and three walks in 25 big league plate appearances in New York. This is a real good opportunity for Laird, who should get a chance to claim an everyday job with a team that epitomizes rebuilding at the moment.

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Yankees re-acquire Pearce, designate Laird

(Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The Yankees have re-acquired Steve Pearce from the Astros for cash, the team announced. Brandon Laird was designated for assignment to clear room on the 40-man roster. No word on how they’ll get Pearce onto the 25-man roster just yet, but I wonder if they’ll be able to wait until tomorrow so they could just option David Phelps to the minors (following tonight’s start) before recalling him when the rosters expand in September. He wouldn’t miss a start thanks to Thursday’s off-day.

Joel Sherman first reported that they were close to bringing Pearce back to serve as a right-handed bat off the bench during the stretch drive. The outfielder/first baseman spent the first half of the season playing for Triple-A Empire State before exercising an opt-out clause in his contract in early-June. The Yankees traded him to the Orioles for cash rather than let him walk as a free agent, then Houston eventually claimed him off waivers from Baltimore.

Pearce, 29, has hit .254/.333/.396 (93 wRC+) in 158 big league plate appearances this season after destroying the Triple-A level (173 wRC+). He’s done a much better job against lefties than righties both this year (120 vs. 80 wRC+) and throughout his career (120 vs. 60 wRC+). Small sample size warnings apply through, the guy only has 679 career plate appearances in the show. Most of his time with the Astros and O’s was spent in the two corner outfield spots, though he has a ton of first base experience as well. Pearce has even played a little third base from time to time.

The 24-year-old Laird really didn’t have anywhere to go with the Yankees. He’s having a decent season repeating Triple-A (98 wRC+), but otherwise is a .256/.295/.409 career hitter in nearly 1,200 plate appearances at the level. Laird had a nice July but the Yankees opted to temporarily recall Ramiro Pena before acquiring Casey McGehee when Alex Rodriguez got hurt. That was a pretty clear indication that Laird had no future in the organization. I suspect he’ll either be traded away in a minor deal or claimed off waivers.

The Yankees have posted a solid 106 wRC+ against southpaws this year, down considerably from last season’s MLB-best 123 mark. Part of that decline has been Andruw Jones‘ inability to repeat last year’s success against lefties (92 vs. 151 wRC+) and Robinson Cano‘s suddenly drastic platoon split (71 wRC+ vs. LHP and 189 vs. RHP). The September schedule loaded with intra-division games (as usual), so the Yankees will see an awful lot of David Price, Matt Moore, Jon Lester, Wei-Yin Chen, Joe Saunders, Ricky Romero, and J.A. Happ down the stretch. Having a spare right-handed bat will definitely come in handy.

The A-Rod Injury & Third Base

(REUTERS/Robert Galbraith)

At this point of the season, with a seven-game lead and 65 left to play, the Yankees are just looking to maintain their cushion and stay healthy. The latter is sometimes out of their hands though, and last night they lost Alex Rodriguez for an unknown length of time when a pitch broke the fifth metacarpal in his left hand. It’s a non-displaced fracture and although that’s better than a displaced fracture, but it will still require a DL stint. Most estimates put his timetable in the 6-8 week range but we won’t know fore sure until he gets back to New York and sees the doctors on Thursday.

One way or the other, the Yankees just lost their starting third baseman and an important middle of the order bat for a not insignificant period of time. A-Rod is no longer the historically great hitter he once was, but his .356 wOBA and 121 wRC+ will be very tough to replace. The Yankees also have zero right-handed power in their lineup now — it’s basically Andruw Jones on the days he starts and that’s it. Switch-hitters Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher do soften the blow, thankfully. The team has not yet announced the corresponding roster move, but they have some options to plug the third base hole.

Eric Chavez
The Yankees have gotten some fantastic production out of Chavez this year (108 wRC+) and he remains a standout defender at the hot corner, but they would risk injury by running him out there on a full-time basis. It’s not a matter of if he would get hurt, just a question of when. Joe Girardi has done a fine of job of limiting his playing time in a way that both helped the team and kept Chavez off the DL. Doing that with Alex on the shelf will be much more difficult.

Jayson Nix
Nix has been fine as the utility infielder but he is a right-handed bat who does almost all of his damage against left-handers (99 wRC+). He and Chavez make sense as a platoon tandem in the short-term but the Yankees run the risk of exposing Chavez to injury and exposing Nix to opposing pitchers by using it permanently.

Eduardo Nunez & Ramiro Pena
Nunez is still working his way back from a thumb injury in the minors, so he’s probably not an option just yet. The Yankees love him and almost certainly would have used him as A-Rod’s replacement had a) he been healthy, and b) his defense not been so bad in April and May that he had to be sent to Triple-A. We’re all familiar with Pena, the switch-hitting slap hitter with a .249/.302/.316 batting line in Triple-A this season. He can play all over the infield and is excellent with the glove, but he can’t hit. You don’t want him out there on a full-time basis at all. Both Nunez and Pena are on the 40-man roster.

(REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine)

Brandon Laird & Corban Joseph
It’s been two years since Laird broke out with an MVP-winning season in Double-A, but Triple-A has been a much more difficult challenge. He’s hit .253/.294/.406 in just over 1,000 plate appearances at the level but has been hot of late, hitting .313/.367/.613 in July. Laird is a right-handed hacker with some power and he can actually play the position well, so he seems like a potential call-up candidate. CoJo has been mashing at Triple-A since making his debut a few weeks ago — .281/.379/.503 with nearly as many walks (31) as strikeouts (34) in 220 plate appearances — and has 43 games of third base experience to his credit (for his career, not this year), so he has to be considered as well. As a left-handed bat, he would get most of the playing time in a platoon. His ability to play second base would be nice as well. These two are both on the 40-man roster.

Outside Help
Go figure, Ryan Roberts was both designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks and traded to the Rays just a few hours before A-Rod got hurt. He would have been a solid temporary replacement had the timing been right. The Yankees could still explore the third base market with the trade deadline a little less than a week away, but I have to think they’ll wait for an official timetable from the doctors before diving into anything. Chase Headley is the big name now that Hanley Ramirez is off the market, but I have a hard time thinking they’ll do something of that magnitude. Headley wouldn’t just impact 2012, he’d impact 2013 and 2014 as well. A free agent-to-be like Marco Scutaro, Stephen Drew, Ty Wigginton, or Placido Polanco may make more sense.

* * *

Regardless of who the Yankees call-up to fill A-Rod’s spot — I expect it to be Nunez, but that’s nothing more than a guess — we’re probably going to see quite a bit of Chavez (and a little bit of Nix) at third for the next week or so. Chavez is an obvious fill-in but Girardi and the Yankees have to be very careful with him, they must ensure that he’s well-rested unless they want to lose two third baseman to the DL. I don’t have much faith in Laird or really any of the minor league guys at the moment, so swinging a trade before the deadline would be preferable. Either way, the Yankees will not be able to replace Alex and everything he provides, even this aging and declining version.

Phelps, Mitchell, Laird, and Kontos all optioned to Triple-A

Via Chad Jennings, the Yankees have officially optioned RHP David Phelps, RHP D.J. Mitchell, 1B/3B/LF Brandon Laird, and RHP George Kontos to Triple-A. All four can still appear in Spring Training games — Phelps will start Thursday’s game against the Red Sox — but they’ve been sent down to start the season. It’s just a procedural move, but it does make the final bullpen spot picture a little clearer. Here’s the first round of roster cuts from last week in case you missed them.

Being Brandon Laird

(Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Being an infield prospect in the upper levels of the Yankees’ farm system is a tough life these days. You know you’re not going to take a job from Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, or Mark Teixeira, so the only way you’re going to make the show is as an injury replacement, a bench piece, or through a trade. Eduardo Nunez has handled the bench player thing reasonably well, but he has the advantage of being a middle infielder. Corner guys like Brandon Laird aren’t so lucky.

The 24-year-old Laird briefly made his big league debut last July before getting an extended stay in September, reaching base seven times (four singles and three walks) in 25 plate appearances. He had a disappointing year with Triple-A Scranton, producing just a .310 wOBA and 16 homers in 489 plate appearances after winning the Double-A Eastern League MVP Award in 2010 (.383 wOBA and 23 homers in 454 plate appearances). Right-handed power (career .189 ISO in the minors) is his offensive calling card, not patience (6.4 BB%). Unless he stops chasing pitcher’s pitches, he’ll have a hard time tapping into that power at the big league level.

Defensively, Laird has made huge strides since being drafted and is considered a third baseman for the long-term. He’s also played plenty of first base, and the Yankees have had him give left field a try over the last 18 months or so. The increased versatility helps his cause, because like I said, serving as a bench player is one of the few ways he’ll be able to crack the big league roster in the foreseeable future. With Bill Hall signed and Eric Chavez potentially on his way back, the Yankees don’t have any room for Laird at the moment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he could use some more regular playing time at Triple-A to work on his selectivity.

The Yankees lack impact position player prospects at the Double and Triple-A level, but they do have a fair amount of infield depth with Laird, Ramiro Pena, Corban Joseph, David Adams, and minor league signing Jayson Nix. They have options if someone gets hurt at the big league level, and alternatives if they choose to trade Laird. He’s a lesser version of Kevin Kouzmanoff, or at least the Kevin Kouzmanoff that came up through the Indians system a half-decade ago. The Tribe traded that Kouzmanoff with a handful of MLB at-bats to his credit because he was blocked at third by Casey Blake, receiving another blocked prospect in return (Josh Barfield, Jesse’s son).

Given Alex Rodriguez’s increasingly problematic lack of durability, it certainly makes sense for the Yankees to keep Laird around as insurance. Unlike the Penas and CoJos and Nixes of the world, he can at least hit for some power. Pulling the trigger on a blocked prospect-for-blocked prospect trade isn’t a terrible idea either, but those deals aren’t exactly easy to come by. Good luck finding a club in need of a third baseman with an outfielder to spare. Laird is stuck in a weird spot because of the players ahead of him on the depth chart, but he’s got a few years to go before having to worry about Dante Bichette Jr. or Tyler Austin coming up behind him.