Headley’s signing is good for Refsnyder and Pirela

Jose Pirela
(AP Photo)

All Rob Refsnyder has done is hit. After starting slowly following the 2012 draft, he’s put up monster numbers at every level of the minors in the last two seasons, ending 2014 in AAA with a .300/.389/.456 (137 wRC+) line. It seems, or at least seemed, that his time in the Bronx is near.

Then the Yankees re-signed Chase Headley, which pushes Refsnyder out of immediate consideration for a starting spot.

It might appear as though the Yankees crowded Refsnyder out of a spot, but by re-signing Headley they might have made his transition to the big leagues easier. The same is true for Jose Pirela, and other candidate for an infield position before Headley signed.

It’s all about versatility

The trade for Martin Prado last July gives the Yankees flexibility. They took advantage right away, starting Prado multiple times at 2B, 3B, LF, and RF. It appears that he’ll start the season as the everyday second baseman, but that could change at any time — not because of Prado’s performance, but because others are stepping up.

Instead of starting Refsnyder at second out of the gate, they’ll have him continue what he started at Scranton Wilkes-Barre. If he continues pummeling the ball as he did in 2014, he can force his way into a call-up even if Prado is performing to expectations.

As of today, Alex Rodriguez is the Yankees’ primary DH. That could change between now and Opening Day, but let’s assume it’s true. In that case, who are the Yankees two biggest on-field risks? Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran. Should anything happen to either, Prado can move to the outfield and Refsnyder can take over at second base.

(Refsnyder did play nine games in the outfield last year, and another 42 in 2012. He was an outfielder in college. But it appears that the Yankees want him to stay at second base. There’s a better chance that they move Prado to the OF rather than Refsnyder.)

Pirela is a man of many positions, having started multiple games at every spot except catcher in 2014. He also continued hitting well, a 117 wRC+ in 581 PA at AAA, which followed a 118 wRC+ in 530 PA at AA in 2013. Basically, ever since he reached AA he’s started to hit. Given his versatility, the Yankees can easily find a spot for him whenever a need arises.

Pirela can slide in for anyone who gets hurt, other than Brian McCann. The Yankees can work in Refsnyder in the event that anyone other than Didi Gregorius gets hurt, moving Prado to whatever position and inserting Refsnyder at 2B.

By fielding a team of veteran major leaguers, the Yankees can let Pirela and Refsnyder signal when they’re ready. With their flexibility, they can probably work in one of those guys at almost any time. Additionally, they provide depth in case of injury. If any of the seven non-mask-wearing fielders gets hurt, the Yankees have an easy way to fill the void.

When the Yankees signed Chase Headley they didn’t block two young players. They merely changed the way they’ll fit into the 2015 plans. It might be for the better, for all parties.

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2014 Season Review: Brendan Ryan and the Random Infielders

Remember last season, when the Yankees had a revolving door at shortstop just about all summer? They had seven players start at least five games at short at year ago. This summer it was only four players, and two of them made fewer than nine starts. The Yankees still cycled through a healthy collection of random backup infielders in 2014, though thankfully it was not as substantial a group as 2013. Let’s recap their seasons.

Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)
Zero on the scoreboard? Shocking. (Jim Rogash/Getty)

Brendan Ryan

Giving Ryan a two-year contract with a player option for a third year definitely flew under the radar as a LOLWTF move last offseason. I mean, I get it, the Yankees had to protect themselves in case Derek Jeter‘s ankle and legs couldn’t hold up, but still. One year in, that’s a weird contract even though it only pays him peanuts. You don’t see players like this get multi-year contracts all that often.

Ryan, 32, actually started this past season on the disabled list after hurting his back in Spring Training — he suffered a pinched nerve in his upper back during drills, then re-aggravated it sitting on the bus during a long Grapefruit League road trip — and he didn’t join the team until early-May. He was a seldom used backup infielder, appearing in only 49 games and starting only 33. Ryan hit a weak .167/.211/.202 (12 wRC+) with no homers, four walks, and 30 strikeouts in 124 plate appearances. He had two (2) multi-hit games.

The Yankees did get their money’s worth out of Ryan defensively by playing him at all four infield spots. Yes, that includes first base. The image of Ryan playing first while Jeter plays short will forever be my lasting memory of the 2014 Yankees. Everything was just so backwards. Ryan is still a quality gloveman but he is clearly no longer elite defensively. That’s sort of the problem. He can’t hit — he’s never hit and never will — and if he’s not going to dominant defensively, then he’s not really worth a roster spot. Of course, if the 2015 season started today, Ryan would be the starting shortstop.

Zelous Wheeler

Because of Jeter’s lost 2013 season, Alex Rodriguez‘s suspension, and Robinson Cano‘s free agency defection, the Yankees hoarded some infielders on minor league contracts last winter. The 27-year-old Wheeler was one of those players, and he put himself on the map with a strong Spring Training and an excellent (132 wRC+) first few weeks with Triple-A Scranton. The Yankees called him up in early-July when Yangervis Solarte played his way down to the minors, and in his very first MLB game, Wheeler did this:

Not a bad way to start your big league career, no? Wheeler swatted another solo homer a week later and didn’t do much else offensively the rest of the season, finishing the year with a .193/.230/.298 (43 wRC+) batting line in 62 plate appearances. He went back down to Triple-A at one point and was recalled in August.

Wheeler is actually still on the 40-man roster, though now that I think about it, it isn’t all that surprising. First off the Yankees have some open 40-man spots, so it’s not like they need to get rid of someone, but also the infield is one giant question mark. They don’t have a second baseman, a third baseman, or a shortstop right now. Wheeler could always go to the minors and I guess he’s worth keeping around as depth for the time being.

Dean Anna

Man, what a season this was. Guys named Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte actually made the Opening Day roster. The Yankees acquired Anna from the Padres in the offseason — they sent reliever Ben Paulus to San Diego, and he had a 4.65 ERA (4.49 FIP) while repeated High-A this summer — and he beat out Eduardo Nunez for the spare infielder’s job in Spring Training. Both he and Solarte did, fair and square.

Anna, 27, played very sparingly in April, though he did record his first career hit in his first career game, a single off Jeremy Jeffress. Anna took Clay Buchholz deep for his first career homerun a week later, though that wasn’t the highlight of his time in pinstripes. One day after sparing the bullpen and throwing a scoreless inning in a blowout loss (video), Anna drew a bases loaded walk in the 12th inning to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead over the Rays:

I wish there was video of the entire at-bat somewhere. It was great. Anna saw eight pitches, fouled off a few tough sliders, and took some others for balls. You can even see Mark Teixeira say it in the video, “that’s a great at-bat.” Ken Singleton said the same thing.

The Yankees sent Anna to Triple-A when Michael Pineda was suspended for the pine tar incident — the suspension forced them to play with a 24-man roster, so they sent down Anna and called up a pitcher to replace Pineda — and he spent the rest of his time in the organization there before being designated for assignment in early-July to clear a 40-man spot for Wheeler. The Pirates claimed Anna off waivers and he spent the rest of the season with their Triple-A club. Anna hit .136/.200/.318 (38 wRC+) in 25 plate appearances with the Yankees.

Jose Pirela

Unlike everyone else in this post, Pirela is actually homegrown. The 24-year-old spent most of the last three years tearing the cover off the ball in Double-A, and he opened this past season with Triple-A Scranton. Pirela hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with ten homers and 15 stolen bases in 130 games with the RailRiders but did not get called up on September 1st. He wasn’t on the 40-man roster but would have been eligible for minor league free agency  after the season (again), and the team opted against adding him to the roster.

This looks like ... not the right way to hit. (Presswire)
This looks like … not the right way to hit. (Presswire)

That all changed when Martin Prado‘s season unexpectedly ended due to an emergency appendectomy in mid-September. The Yankees did indeed call up Pirela after that, though he sat on the bench for about a week before finally getting into a game. He tripled off Wei-Yin Chen in his first career plate appearance — it was a bomb off the wall in left-center, I thought it was gone off the bat — and sliced a single to right next time up. Pirela went 2-for-3 with the triple in his first career game and was a mainstay in the lineup after that, starting six of the team’s final seven games and coming off the bench in the seventh.

All told, Pirela went 8-for-24 (.333) with a double and two triples (149 wRC+) during his brief time in pinstripes at the end of the year. He started three games at DH and the final three games of the seasons at second base, after the Yankees had been eliminated. Pirela is one of those guys who has done nothing but put up great numbers in the minors even though the scouting reports aren’t glowing. The Yankees were able to re-sign him when he became a minor league free agent last winter, but after his strong season in Triple-A, another team might have offered more opportunity this offseason. Adding him to the 40-man will keep him in the organization, and, right now, Pirela has the inside track for a big league job in 2015, either at second base or on the bench.

Scott Sizemore

Sizemore was part of that group of infielders the Yankees brought in as minor league free agents last winter. The 29-year-old spent most of the season with Triple-A Scranton but did get called up to New York a few times, going 5-for-16 (.313) with three doubles and eight strikeouts (107 wRC+). He also drove in four runs in his limited time, which is kinda neat. Sizemore had a 108 wRC+ in Triple-A, was released at the end of July, then re-signed a few days later. He spent a bunch of time on the disabled list with an unknown injury as well as on the restricted list with some kind of off-the-field problem. In a season of mostly forgettable random infielders, Sizemore was the most forgettable.

Mailbag: Jeter, A-Rod, Sabathia, Pirela, Ex-Yanks

Got six questions for you this week, the first week of the offseason. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything at anytime, mailbag comments or otherwise.

(Jim Rogash/Getty)
(Jim Rogash/Getty)

Terri asks: What do you think the chances are for Derek Jeter to go into the Hall of Fame as a unanimous choice?

Very small, but better than they would be in 2015 because there will be some turnover in the voting body before Jeter is eligible for induction in five years. Greg Maddux, whose Hall of Fame case was unimpeachable, did not appear on 20 (!) of the 575 ballots this year. Jeter may get a higher percentage of the vote — Tom Seaver still holds the record after appearing on 98.8% of the ballots — than Maddux because he won more titles and was simply more popular, but I’ll continue to bet against a player getting in unanimously until it actually happens. Too many older voters still send in blank ballots in an attempt to make some kind of statement. It’s silly, but that’s life. Don’t worry, Jeter will still get in on the first ballot.

Dan asks: Would it hurt the Yankees brand if Alex Rodriguez, given what we know about his connections with PEDs, broke Babe Ruth’s home run record? Also, is it financially responsible to allow A-Rod to reach the $6 million bonuses from the incentive clauses in his contract that was signed under the pretenses of marketing these achievements from a then “clean” athlete?

On the contrary, I think it will help the team’s #brand. They’re going to make a ton of money if Alex Rodriguez manages to get close to Babe Ruth’s Barry Bonds’ homerun record. People are still going to pay oodles of money to see history and boo the everloving crap out of him. Yeah, the bonuses were signed under the pretense that A-Rod was clean, but CC Sabathia‘s contract was signed under the pretense he would be a 200+ inning workhorse. It didn’t work out, that’s the risk you take when entering into a contract with a player. If the Yankees try to get out of those bonuses, A-Rod and the union will file a grievance and probably win given the contract language. They’re not going to let the team weasel out of that money. It’s a precedent the MLBPA won’t allow to be set.

Daniel asks: Given the new regime entering the MLB offices, how important is it for the Yankees’ financial freedom that this year’s playoff picture includes lower budget teams like Royals, Pirates, and Athletics? Obviously spending money doesn’t win you championships per se but more often than not it puts you in contention and the Wild Card has proven that’s all you need. Will these lower budget teams getting a chance have an impact on the CBA? Will it prevent MLB from considering a salary cap?

A salary cap won’t happen because the union won’t allow it to happen. The luxury tax system is a compromise. Baseball is way too strong financially right now to start putting limits on payroll. The owners would love one, sure, but the MLBPA will fight this tooth and nail. I think they would strike before accepting a salary cap and no one wants a work stoppage. The game is too healthy. Maybe seeing those smaller payroll teams get into the postseason both this year and the last few years (Rays!) will help keep the salary cap conversation at bay, but I don’t think it will have a big impact. The biggest argument against a salary cap is the league’s revenue.

Jack asks: CC’s days of going 200+ innings per year are over. The knee can’t take the pounding, especially over the course of a season. On the other hand, if he is only needed for say 100 innings a year he might be able to play out his contract. What do you think of putting him in the bullpen? It’ll be less strain on the arm (and knee) and will allow him to air it out for each of the one or two innings he pitches, so instead of maxing at say 90 mph he can get back to say maybe 93/94?

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

I think it’s worth it to find if Sabathia can still start first. He’ll almost certainly never be an ace again, but maybe he can be what Hiroki Kuroda was this year following knee surgery, even if it’s only for one year. If Sabathia can’t start, either physically or because his performance is terrible, then stick him in the bullpen and see what happens. I don’t think they’re at that point yet. Give him a chance to start following surgery and see where he’s at. We all just might be pleasantly surprised.

Dustin asks: How playable do you think Jose Pirela is at SS? Could the Yanks save a little cash and maybe even slightly upgrade offensively and in terms of defensive flexibility by bringing Pirela off the bench as a super utility guy? That’s assuming they have a rock-solid everyday SS like Hardy.

The Yankees moved Pirela off shortstop permanently following the 2011 season — he’s played only eight games at the position since, all this year with Triple-A Scranton. He’s been a second baseman and left fielder more than anything these last few years, though he’s seen time pretty much everywhere other than pitcher or catcher. Pirela could probably play shortstop the way Yangervis Solarte did earlier this year, a spot start here or there but not everyday. If the Yankees signed J.J. Hardy or whoever and he got hurt, they’d have to play Brendan Ryan at short everyday, not Pirela. He can hit though, and there’s a decent chance he’ll force the team’s hand in Spring Training the way Solarte did this year. His versatility and right-handed bat would be nice to have on the bench.

JPK asks: Using just players that came through the Yankee system, who are no longer Yankees, and were active in MLB this past season, make your best starting lineup…. Mine is Jackson CF, Melky RF, Cano 2B, Soriano DH, Montero 1B, Navarro C, Nunez 3B, R Pena SS, A. Almonte LF… Did I miss anyone?

I’ll do you one better. Here’s an entire roster of former Yankees’ farmhands who played in MLB this season.

Catcher Infielders Outfielders Rotation Bullpen
Dioner Navarro 1B Jesus Montero LF Melky Cabrera RH Phil Hughes RH John Axford
2B Robinson Cano CF Austin Jackson RH Ian Kennedy RH J. Chamberlain
DH SS Ramiro Pena RF Jose Tabata RH Zach McAllister RH Tyler Clippard
Alfonso Soriano 3B E. Nunez LH Vidal Nuno LH Mike Dunn
LH Jose Quintana RH D. Farquhar
Bench RH George Kontos
C Eric Fryer IF Dean Anna RH Mark Melancon
UTIL J. Paredes OF Abe Almonte

The roster would look quite a bit better if I could include players the Yankees drafted but did not sign, specifically Gerrit Cole, Doug Fister, Drew Storen, and Chris Davis. The notable omissions are all pitchers: Hector Noesi, Tommy Kahnle, Phil Coke, and Randy Choate. The Yankees have produced a bunch of decent arms recently but not many bats — Fryer and Anna are really stretching the definition of “coming up through the system.” My lineup one through nine would be similar to JPK’s:

  1. Jackson
  2. Melky
  3. Cano
  4. Soriano
  5. Navarro
  6. Montero
  7. Tabata
  8. Nunez
  9. Rakin’ Ramiro

The pitchers are listed alphabetically but my rotation would be Quintana followed in order by Hughes and Kennedy, with Nuno and McAllister in whatever order in the fourth and fifth spots. Pick ‘em out of a hat. Melancon would close with Clippard and Farquhar setting him up. I don’t really have a long man but whatever. Just spit-balling it, that roster would win what, maybe 70-75 games? It would rely (heavily) on the pitching and Cano driving in Jackson and Melky. That’s pretty much it. Maybe some trademark Yankees Magic™ would get them to 81 wins.

Update: Prado out for season following appendectomy, Yankees call up Jose Pirela

12:05pm: The Yankees officially announced Prado is done for the year following the appendectomy. He has been placed on the 60-day DL and utility man Jose Pirela was called up. Pirela, 24, hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with ten homers and 15 steals with Triple-A Scranton this year. He was due to become a minor league free agent after the season and was a borderline 40-man roster candidate.

11:12am: Martin Prado will likely miss the remainder of the season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, according to Meredith Marakovits. The season ends in 12 days and most players need several weeks to recover from an appendectomy, though Matt Holliday only missed seven games following the procedure a few years ago. Holliday is the exception, not the rule. The Yankees are out of the race and there’s no sense in rushing Prado back though. Let him heal up and get ready for next year.

Yankees have internal options if they want to shakeup the offense

The Yankees are averaging only 3.48 runs per game over the last calendar month. They’ve been held to two runs or less ten times in 27 games during that stretch. Even if Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann start hitting as expected, the Yankees would still be running out a lineup that includes Derek Jeter, Brian Roberts, Ichiro Suzuki/Alfonso Soriano, and Kelly Johnson/Yangervis Solarte on a regular basis. That’s way too many soft spots. The Bombers need to add some thump to the lineup before the trade deadline even if McCann and Beltran show up to the park and start raking tomorrow.

The Yankees are locked into players at catcher, first base, shortstop, left field, center field, and designated hitter either by contract status or iconic status. There is nothing they can do at those positions other than hope for more production, so, the only spots they can make real changes are second base, third base, and right field. The trade market has yet to develop but the Yankees do actually have some internal options if they want to shake things up. They aren’t future stars or the sexiest names, but they might be upgrades. Here are those internal options with their 2014 PECOTA projections because why not? No one knows what to expect from them at the MLB level and this gives us a point of reference.

Pirela in winter ball. (v)
Pirela in winter ball. (zonadeportiva.net)

UTIL Jose Pirela (PECOTA: .254/.307/.394)
The 24-year-old Pirela has been in the farm system so long that he became a six-year minor league free agent this past winter. The Yankees re-signed him and he is now hitting .320/.361/.466 (130 wRC+) with seven homers and ten steals in 304 plate appearances for Triple-A Scranton, his first extended stint at the level after spending most of 2011-13 with Double-A Trenton. He hit .281/.355/.430 (~120 wRC+) with Trenton while repeating the level from 2012-13.

Pirela is a classic stats over scouting report guy. He didn’t hit much in the lower minors but broke out during the 2012 season (123 wRC+). It seemed fishy at the time because he was repeating the level, but he has continued to hit this summer at Triple-A, where he has only five games of prior experience. Pirela has always had an interesting enough bat but he is a poor defender. Eduardo Nunez bad. Well, maybe not that bad, but bad. He moved off shortstop for good in 2012 and has spent most of his time at second base and left field since.

After starting the season as the RailRiders’ everyday second baseman, Pirela has spent just about this entire month in left field while mixing in the occasional start at first base, a position he had never played before this year. (The move off second was prompted by Rob Refsnyder‘s arrival.) Unless the Yankees are going to stick Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury in right field — Gardner played one game there earlier this season and it was ugly — Pirela only fits at second base. Either that or move him to right for the first time in his life.

2B Rob Refsnyder (PECOTA: .235/.319/.344)
I’ve written about Refsnyder on more than one occasion this season, so I’m going to keep this short. The 23-year-old has hit .292/.404/.458 (145 wRC+) in his first 14 Triple-A games after tearing the cover off the ball at Double-A and really his entire pro career before that. Refsnyder might not be the team’s best hope for a long-term Robinson Cano replacement (Gosuke Katoh and Angelo Gumbs are among those in the system with higher ceilings), but he is the closest to the show and will get the first crack at the job. His defense is the issue; Refsnyder still needs to improve at second after playing the outfield in college.

UTIL Zelous Wheeler (PECOTA: .245/.316/.390)
The Yankees signed the 27-year-old Wheeler as a minor league free agent over the winter, mostly because they had a need at third base and he has a ton of experience there. Plus it didn’t hurt that he put up decent numbers at the Double-A and Triple-A levels the last few seasons (~106 wRC+). Bring him to Spring Training then see what happens in Triple-A type of deal.

Wheeler. (AP)
Wheeler. (AP)

Wheeler has put up an impressive .308/.365/.469 (134 wRC+) batting line with six homers in 59 games with Triple-A Scranton while playing all over the field — he’s played at least ten games each at third base, shortstop, and right field. He’s also spent time at second base throughout the years. Wheeler was never a top prospect — he failed to crack Baseball America’s top 30 lists in some pretty bad Brewers’ systems a few years ago, for what it’s worth — but he’s versatile and he’s hitting well at the highest level of the minors. That could be enough to get him a call-up given the current state of the roster.

OF Zoilo Almonte (PECOTA: .252/.300/.419)
Almonte, 25, has had two cups of coffee with the Yankees since last year and they haven’t been particularly impressive (50 wRC+), but he continues to hit at Triple-A, putting up a .268/.314/.455 (111 wRC+) line with ten homers in 223 plate appearances this year. Zoilo absolutely can not hit lefties (.394 OPS vs. LHP at Triple-A this year) despite being a switch-hitter, so his only value comes as the left-handed half of a right field platoon. The Yankees already have Ichiro doing on okay job in that role, but Ichiro hits lefties better than righties and Almonte could give them more power from the position.

IF Scott Sizemore (PECOTA: .245/.330/.392)
Like Almonte, the 29-year-old Sizemore has been up and down a few times this year, going 5-for-16 (.313) in pinstripes while hitting .265/.327/.387 (99 wRC+) with three homers in 226 Triple-A plate appearances. He has had to shake off the rust after missing nearly two full years with a pair of knee surgeries. Sizemore has destroyed minor league lefties in a limited sample this year (.880 OPS), which matches up with his career 122 wRC+ against MLB southpaws before the knee problems. He could serve as a right-handed platoon option at either second or third.

* * *

I don’t think the Yankees will cut ties with Roberts. He’s hit well enough over the last week or so and they seem to appreciate his long at-bats and veteran presence*. I don’t believe Soriano is safe though, and Solarte could always be optioned to Triple-A to clear another roster spot. It’s not like he’s done much with the bat over the last month anyway. Johnson has received some more playing time of late but could still go. Ichiro? Forget it. He’s on the roster until he decides to retire.

If the Yankees do decide to cut bait with Soriano, I think Pirela or Wheeler would be the best bests to replace him, preferably Pirela because he’s younger and might actually have a future with the team. Refsnyder needs more time to work on his defense and doesn’t offer the same kind of versatility. If they kick an infielder to the curb as well, I’d go with Pirela/Wheeler or Sizemore. That’s just my opinion. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here other than calling up Refsnyder and playing him twice a week. None of these guys are going to save the offense, but they could be an upgrade over what the team is running out there right now. The tricky part is figuring out which one will help the most.

* I resisted the “veteran presents” joke, but only this time!

Minors Notes: Sanchez, Whitley, Campos, Ravel

Got a collection of minor league notes to pass along, courtesy of Chad Jennings and Matt Eddy:

  • VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman confirmed C Gary Sanchez is eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter. I thought he had at least one more year to go, but it’s always tough to pin down the international guys. Obviously Sanchez will be added to the 40-man roster and protected from the draft.
  • RHP Chase Whitley may remain a starter in the future. The career reliever has made a handful of spot starts the last two years, and he’s the rare reliever who used three pitches fairly regularly. “He’s got a great changeup, so it was, let’s see if he can do this,” said Newman. “His velocity picked up over the last two years, he’s always had a very good changeup, we’re working on his breaking ball. We had some innings in the rotation, and he’s got starter stuff, so he may get a look in that way in the future.”
  • Newman confirmed RHP Jose Campos will again have his workload controlled next season. He was limited to three or four inning outings all summer. He’ll throw more innings overall, but they’re not yet ready to turn him loose just yet. Campos missed pretty much all of last season with an elbow injury.
  • Apparently OF Ravel Santana broke his arm at some point. That’s on top of the brutal ankle injury that completely derailed his career two years ago. “He’s had two really tough injuries,” said Newman. “He’s had a tough go.”
  • The Yankees re-signed UTIL Jose Pirela to a minor league contract. He became a six-year minor league free agent after the season. The 23-year-old has spent the last few years with Double-A Trenton, putting up a ~120 wRC+ in 888 plate appearances the last two seasons. Pirela’s not much of a prospect, but he can play all over the field. He’s the kind of guy who could sneak a call-up at some point.

Pirela returns to prospect relevance

(MiLB.com)

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.