Yesterday we talked about Baseball America’s lists of the top tools in the big leagues, and today they released their lists for Triple-A, Double-A, and Single-A (subs. req’d). Not too many Yankees farmhand made the cut, only Brandon Laird (best defensive 3B), Ramon Flores (best plate discipline), and Slade Heathcott (best defensive outfielder) took home honors at their respective levels. Jesus Montero got beat out by Ryan Lavarnway (Red Sox) for top power prospect, Dellin Betances by Henderson Alvarez (Blue Jays) for best fastball, Manny Banuelos by Eric Surkamp (Giants) for best changeup, and Gary Sanchez by Bryce Harper for best power prospect. Seems like the Yanks have a lot of guys that would rank second, third, or fourth in the various categories rather than first.
The Yankees made their first trade deadline deal today. Joel Sherman reports that they have acquired Eric Chavez from the disabled list in exchange for Brandon Laird going back to Triple-A. Chavez is in the lineup and playing third base tonight. The Yankees had an open 40-man roster spot thanks to Brian Gordon fleeing for Korea, so no other move was required. Welcome back, Chavy.
Brandon Laird, come on up. You’re the next contestant on “Can the Yanks’ Back-Up Infielder Field Cleanly?” As per George A. King III, Ramiro Peña will be on the disabled list for four to six weeks after undergoing an emergency appendectomy this morning in the Tampa Bay Area. The Yanks have recalled Laird to take his place. Ranked 14th in our pre-season prospect list, the 23-year-old was hitting .266/.296/.415 with 10 home runs in 362 plate appearances for AAA Scranton. He’ll likely share some time at third base with Eduardo Nuñez unless the Yanks acquire an offensive upgrade before the trade deadline.
Alex Rodriguez will miss the next month or so after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee today, leaving the Yankees will a huge hole in their lineup. Even though he hasn’t been hitting for power, A-Rod was still very productive from the cleanup spot, hitting .333/.387/.417 in 93 plate appearances since his last homerun. The Yankees can replace his stats (they may luck out and find someone to match that production but the odds are against it), though they won’t replace the way his presence impacts the game. Alex is one of those rare players that changes the game from the on-deck circle, and no backup infield does that.
Reports over the weekend indicated that the Yankees prefer to replace A-Rod from within, but they’ll at least kick the tires on outside options. The most popular trade candidate seems to be Aramis Ramirez, but he’s a complete non-option. He can definitely hit, no doubt (.298/.346/.497), but his contract says his $16M club option for 2012 turns into a player option if he’s traded. That’s a total deal breaker, there’s no reason for the Yankees to take that on for a six-week stopgap. More realistic options include Melvin Mora and Kevin Kouzmanoff, but they’re not guaranteed to outperform the guys already have in the organization.
The obvious in-house replacement is Eduardo Nunez, who did a fine job filling in for Derek Jeter a few weeks ago. The team has already indicated that he’ll get the bulk of the playing time in A-Rod’s absence, but there is one other option: Brandon Laird. Gerald’s little brother is already on the 40-man roster and is having an okay but not great season at Triple-A. He’s hitting .268/.297/.418 overall with ten homers, though it’s worth noting that he’s been playing better of late: .299/.325/.470 in his last 243 plate appearances, .292/.320/.503 in his last 153 plate appearances, and .311/.321/.584 in his last 78 plate appearances. No, he’s doesn’t walk much, but that’s life.
Laird does his best work against southpaws, tagging them for a .300/.337/.525 line this year (.258/.284/.383 vs. RHP) with a similar platoon split through his career. Not only does have a plethora of experience at third base, but he’s also played plenty of first base and the Yankees have had him dabble in left field over the last ten months or so. It’s probably not a coincidence that his first career game in right field came two days ago. Laird won’t win any Gold Gloves, but he won’t embarrass himself and should make all the routine plays, just not the spectacular onces. My guess is that with a full season’s worth of playing time, he’d probably be 5-10 runs below average with the glove. Not awful, but his bat is good enough that he should be better than replacement level.
For all intents and purposes, this is why the Yankees protected Laird from the Rule 5 Draft last winter. He’ll never ever ever be a starter on this team (barring disaster, anyway), so he serves two purposes: trade bait and an injury fill-in. If he performs well enough at the latter, maybe he snags a bench job for a while. There’s no doubt he’s better than Ramiro Pena, especially offensively, so the Yankees could swap the two and use Laird two or three times a week, primarily against lefties. That way Nunez could spell Jeter and Robinson Cano (or even get a day off himself) without completely sacrificing offense. He’d also be the fifth outfielder and backup first baseman as well.
This is exactly the kind of situation teams carry players like Laird, to fill a temporary hole on the big league roster. ZiPS projected a .250/.297/.424 batting line at big league level before the season, which would be a minor miracle in my eyes. The minor league equivalency of his Triple-A performance is .234/.261/.355 overall and .268/.285/.398 over his last 243 plate appearances. That’s a .295 wOBA or so, and maybe optimal usage (i.e. limited exposure to righties) gets him up to a .310-.315 wOBA, basically league average. I’d rather give Laird a chance to do that than stick with Pena, who we all know will be awful. Sorry Ramiro, nothing personal.
This isn’t quite a long-term fill-in situation but it’s not short-term either, let’s call it medium-term. It’s the perfect chance to try Laird out and see what the kid can do. If he flops, then fine, the Yankees will have essentially lost nothing because his replacement (Pena) is also terrible. If mean really, if not now, then when? Come Thursday (when the games start back up), there are two moves I want to see: Pena down and A-Rod to the disabled list, replaced by Laird and (I guess) Chris Dickerson. Nunez gets the majority of the playing time but Laird sees semi-regular at-bats against lefties. The bench would be the non-useless quartet of Laird/Nunez, Dickerson, Andruw Jones, and Frankie Cervelli. This is why they put Laird on the 40-man during the offseason, to use him in spots like this.
Via Chad Jennings, the Yankees have optioned Andrew Brackman, Brandon Laird, Melky Mesa, Kevin Russo, Steve Garrison, and Ryan Pope to various levels of the minor leagues. All six guys are on the 40-man roster, and the actual level they were assigned to isn’t important. They’re just paper moves for the time being. By my count, there’s still 40 players in camp, but that doesn’t count the injured Frankie Cervelli, Reegie Corona, and Colin Curtis.
The focus this spring is on the final two rotation spots, but that’s not the only position battle in Yankees camp. There is also a competition for the final spot on the bench. The main contestants, it seems, are Eric Chavez, Ronnie Belliard, Brandon Laird, Justin Maxwell, and Greg Golson. Each player brings something different to the table, so the Yankees will have options. In fact, it is exactly that — options, but in a different sense — that might keep the best of the lot in AAA to start the season.
Usually when a player is drafted twice, his position improves the second time around. Not so with Laird. The Indians took him in the 27th round of the 2005 draft. Then, when he entered two years later, the Yankees took him in the same round. He signed the second time and played the rest of the season in the rookie Gulf Coast League, where he produced unsurprisingly solid numbers. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he’d really break out.
Despite playing in a home park that hitters typically hate, Laird produced incredible power numbers in AA Trenton, slugging 23 homers to go along with his 22 doubles. The end result was a .291/.355/.523 line and a late-season promotion to AAA. It also opened the Yankees’ eyes a bit. Knowing that he probably wouldn’t fit at third base — the team is set there for a number of years, after all — they decided to have him try the outfield in the Arizona Fall League. He enters camp this year as a guy who can play first, third, and the corner outfield positions. That makes him more versatile than a number of other 25th spot contestants.
When you see Laird’s breakout and then read stories like the one Marc Carig published this morning, it’s tough not to root for Laird. He is much improved on defense, and he could very well have the best bat of the guys competing for that spot. The problem, of course, is that the Yankees don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole him as a utility guy just yet. That’s probably the only role he can fill on this team, unless his bat takes another big step forward this year. The best option, then, is to send him down to AAA and let him get regular reps. He can provide depth in case of injury or ineffectiveness, and he might be a useful chip at the trade deadline.
If the Yankees were picking the 25th roster spot based on versatility and production potential, I’d have to think Laird would get the nod. He can play more positions than Eric Chavez, and he has a better bat than Belliard and Golson, and probably Maxwell, too. But since the Yankees have options, and since he’s young and potentially valuable down the road, they’ll most likely preserve their depth and go with someone else in the 25th spot. Meanwhile, Laird can get more reps, especially in the outfield, which will go towards building his value as a bench player or a trade chip.
Make no mistake: the Yankees have a valuable player in Laird. It just doesn’t seem as though this is his year to break camp with the team. If he continues hitting like he did last year, he’ll get his share of shots. But this year the Yankees will be better served by letting Laird play every day and taking someone else in a spot that might account for 150 PA during the course of a season.
- Dellin Betances, Brandon Laird, and Ryan Pope were all added to the 40-man roster, protecting them from the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. I thought that George Kontos would get protected as well, but the Yankees must feel that he isn’t capable of sticking on a big league team’s 25-man roster for a full season yet. He, along with Craig Heyer and Lance Pendleton, are candidates to be selected.
- The Yanks acquired minor league outfielder Cody Johnson from the Braves in exchange for cash considerations. Johnson, 22, was the 24th overall pick in the 2006 draft but it hasn’t clicked yet. He’s got big time power (career .233 ISO) but is a whiff machine (39.0% strikeout rate), and in fact 49.9% of his 1,813 career plate appearances have ended with a homer, walk, or strikeout. Three true outcomes FTW. Johnson is likely to begin 2011 with Double-A Trenton.