Ramiro Pena headlines crop of minor league free agents

Baseball America published their annual list of the offseason’s minor league free agents today, a collection of 549 total players. Here are the players the Yankees are losing to the open market…

RHP: Jason Bulger (AAA), Kelvin Castro (R), Manny Delcarmen (AAA), Grant Duff (AA), John Maine (AAA), Ronny Marte (HiA), Jon Meloan (AAA), Tim Norton (AAA), Ramon Ortiz (AAA), Kevin Whelan (AAA)
LHP: Lee Hyde (AA), Mike O’Connor (AAA), Josh Romanski (AA)
C: Jose Gil (AAA), Gustavo Molina (AAA), Craig Tatum (AAA)
3B: Kevin Russo (AAA)
SS: Doug Bernier (AAA), Walter Ibarra (AA), Ramiro Pena (AAA)
OF: Edwin Beard (SS), Cole Garner (AAA)

Pena, who has spent parts of the last four seasons in New York, headlines the crop of mostly older, veteran players. Losing the three Triple-A catchers is part of the reason why the Yankees claimed Eli Whiteside yesterday. Someone needs to sit on the bench and be the backup in Scranton. Whelan and Russo had very brief stints with the Yankees a few years ago, and Garner made some noise early in Spring Training this year. Duff and Norton have already transitioned to coaching within the organization.

The Yankees already re-signed four would-be minor league free agents to new minor league contracts a few weeks ago, most notably lefty Juan Cedeno and outfielder Abe Almonte. Andrew Brackman (Reds) is the most notable former Yankees farmhand cut lose by another team.

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Yanks call up Peña, DFA Kevin Russo, claim RHP Jess Todd

The Yanks made a few minor moves this afternoon as they have officially called up Ramiro Peña to replace the injured Eric Chavez on the roster. They have also designated Kevin Russo for assignment and picked up right-handed reliever Jess Todd off of waivers from the Indians. Russo, 26 and an off-season trade candidate, was hitting just .230/.306/.300 at AAA and had been taking up precious space on the team’s 40-man. The move to pick up Todd though is a strange one. Todd, once the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league pitcher of the year, was a second round pick back in 2007, but despite minor league success, he has allowed 24 earned runs in 28.1 Major League innings. Still, he has posted over a strike out per inning and is only 25.

Yankees tried to trade Kevin Russo

Via Joel Sherman, the Yankees apparently tried to trade utility man Kevin Russo late in Spring Training. That must have been after they decided on Eduardo Nunez and Eric Chavez as the reserve infielders with Ramiro Pena stashed in Triple-A. Given Chavez’s injury, they’re probably glad they held onto him/couldn’t find taker.

By no means is Russo great, but he’s versatile (can play three infield spots and left field) and has shown the ability to get on base in the minor leagues (.351 OBP). He is hitting just .227/.299/.299 in 24 games for Triple-A Scranton this year, but he’s a career .285/.358/.371 hitter at the level, which is where he’s spent the vast majority of the last three seasons. In a brief (54 plate appearance) cameo with the big league team last year, he hit .184/.245/.224 with one really big hit.

Yanks send down Brackman, five others

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.

Sorting out the last bench spot

I can has bench job? (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

You know we’re getting down to the final few days of the offseason when we’re continually talking about the last spot on the bench. The Yankees have a few in-house options for that spot alongside Andruw Jones, Frankie Cervelli, and Eduamiro Penunez, so let’s sort them out…

Justin Maxwell
What He Offers: speed, power, walks, defense
What He Lacks: contact skills, durability

Probably the most physically gifted of the team’s fifth bench options, Maxwell’s relatively short big league career (260 PA) features a .178 ISO and 14.8% walks, exceptionally good numbers. For comparison’s sake, Jason Heyward had a .179 ISO with a 14.6% walk rate in his stellar rookie season last year. I could be a function of small sample size, though it’s worth noting that in exactly 900 PA at the Double and Triple-A levels, Maxwell owns a .222 ISO and an 11.6% walk rate. The underlying skills are there, which Baseball America noted when they named him Washington’s eighth best prospect before last season. He’s also a high-percentage basestealer (78.9% success rate in the minors) with a pair of 35 SB seasons under his belt in the high minors.

Guys with power, speed, the ability to draw walks and defend well in center are a rare breed, but what’s holding Maxwell back are some big time holes in his swing. He’s struck out in 37.9% of his big league at-bats, 26.6% in Double and Triple-A. He’s very similar to Andruw Jones in that you’ll get a low batting average, but he’ll still get on base at an okay clip and occasionally run into a few pitches. There’s also the injury bug. Maxwell is on his way back from Tommy John surgery right now (on his non-throwing elbow), but he’s also battled wrist and toe issues in the past.

Greg Golson
What He Offers: speed, defense, a tiny amount of power
What He Lacks: ability to draw walks, make consistent contact

Golson did a fine job as a late-inning defensive replacement and occasional pinch-runner last year, but he’s been around long enough that we know what he brings to the table offensively, and it’s just not much. In nearly 1,600 PA at Double and Triple-A, he owns a very good .161 ISO (though most of that is tied up in Double-A) but subpar walk (5.7%) and strikeout (34.1%) rates. Thankfully he can defend very well in three outfield spots and be a highly effective basestealer (78.9% success rate with no fewer than 20 SB in four of the last five years).

Limited by his lack of offensive ability, featuring not even one standout tool at the plate (power or getting on base or being able to make a ton of contact), means Golson’s speed and defense have to be that spectacular for him to hold down a roster spot.

Colin Curtis
What He Offers: a little of this, a little of that
What He Lacks: a standout tool

Lil' CC did a good. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The forgotten man, Curtis has one thing on both Maxwell and Golson: he’s a left-handed hitter, and the Yankees have zero of those on their bench right now. He’s a classic ‘tweener, doing just enough to get by but lacking a standout tool that can carry him. His offensive performance at Double and Triple-A is fine but nothing special (.118 ISO, 8.5% walks, 17.7% strikeouts) in a little more than 1,400 PA, and he’s never been much of a basestealer (just 25-for-42 in his career). Curtis can man the outfielder corners capably and play center in an emergency, but he’s not good enough to play their regularly.

* * *

Of course, the wildcards in all of this are are Kevin Russo, Eric Chavez, and Ronnie Belliard. Russo isn’t not great offensively (.093 ISO, 8.7% walks, 17.0% strikeouts in over 950 PA at the upper levels of the minors) or on the bases (55-for-77 in SB attempts in his career, 71.4%), but he does something none of those three guys above can do: play the infield. The Yankees have groomed him as a utility player basically his entire career, so he has experience playing the three non-first base infield spots as well as all three outfield spots (mostly left though). Since that last man on the bench doesn’t figure to see too many plate appearances, maybe they’ll decide to go with the versatile guy just to have at least two players on the bench capable of playing the infield (Russo and Penunez) and two capable of playing the outfield (Russo and Jones).

As for Chavez and Belliard … they’re the veterans on minor league deals. I have little faith in Chavez staying healthy or being productive through Spring Training, though it’s worth noting that his lefty bat would make sense for the bench. Belliard is probably the front-runner for a job given his versatility and occasionally productive bat, though he’s not going to swing the balance of power in the AL East.

If I’m picking out of those six, I’d probably go with Belliard for the time being. Maxwell is clearly the best player of the bunch, and that’s why he should spend the summer playing regularly and batting near the top of Triple-A Scranton’s order. He’s been banged up pretty bad in three of the last four years, so catching up on some at-bats wouldn’t be the end of the world. I think the chances of the Yankees carrying both Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena to start the year went down considerably once Belliard and Chavez came aboard, but I’m not sure how much that helps. Granted, it’s the 25th guy on the roster, but a little optimization never hurt.