The Obligatory Ronnie Mustelier Post

(Rudy C. Jones/MiLB.com)

The bench, particularly a right-handed hitting outfielder, and the DH spot have been the Yankees’ primary areas of focus these last few weeks and that will probably continue until pitchers and catchers report in five weeks. The free agent market still has several DH-type players available and the club does have Matt Diaz, Russ Canzler, and Melky Mesa in-house as candidates for that right-handed outfield bat role. They also have a fourth internal option in Ronnie Mustelier, who Michael Eder at The Yankee Analysts wrote about this week and a number of people have emailed me about these last few months. I figured it was time to chime in.

First things first, we have to understand that we know very little about Mustelier. We do know that he defected from Cuba in late-2009 and signed with the Yankees in June 2011 thanks to Matt Eddy at Baseball America. We also know that he turned 28 this past August, hit .301/.407/.517 in Cuba from 2007-2009, and is a career .324/.378/.497 hitter across four minor league levels because that’s what Baseball-Reference tells us. He doesn’t have a platoon split according to Minor League Central, and his overall strikeout rate (13.0%) is pretty great in 656 minor league plate appearances. We have to remember that he was old for every level, however. Mustelier’s a right-handed hitter who has played second and third bases as well as both outfield corners since signing with New York. The vast majority of his 2012 season was spent in left. If MiLB.com’s bio information is to be trusted, we also know he’s a little portly at 5-foot-10 and 210 lbs.

That’s pretty much it. The closest thing we have to an actually scouting report on Mustelier is this collection of quotes from VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman back in early-October (Baseball America subs. req’d)…

“He has a very short stroke and pretty good balance … He strikes out once in every seven at-bats. His walks are below-average but he puts the ball in play … He played third, second, left and right … We are trying to find out where his best defensive position is and what our needs are … He can run and cover ground … He can also play right. He improved defensively over the course of the season.”

Within that same link we learn the Yankees signed Mustelier for just $50k, a pittance compared to most Cuban defectors. You have to take an organization’s quotes on its own players with a big grain of salt because of course they’re going to talk the guy up. Newman’s stuff on Mustelier isn’t outrageous though, it’s not like he called him a plus defender with elite bat speed or something. That would have been a little weird given the modest signing bonus, which indicates little interest from around the league.

Baseball America’s John Manuel offered up his take on Mustelier during the publication’s Top 20 Triple-A International League Prospects chat back in early-October (subs. req’d)…

I see him as a player for a potential Cuban ex-pat team in the WBC. I do not see him as an MLB option. Guys like Mustelier and Barbaro Canizares and Leslie Anderson and other Cuban ex-pats can make a good living in professional baseball outside of the major leagues, but he doesn’t strike me as a player with a position outside of the batter’s box. He does have bat speed and he can hit a good fastball. Maybe that gets him a chance.

So that’s pretty much it. Those last few paragraphs are basically all we know about Mustelier at this point. He’s performed very well since signing but has been old for the level each time. He offers some defensive versatility, but he probably fits best in left field based on how the organization used him. The fact that the Yankees did not stick Mustelier back at third base — they did move David Adams over to third, remember — following Alex Rodriguez‘s hand injury in the second half tells me they don’t think he can handle the position in the big leagues, even on a temporary basis. It’s not like the team had a real prospect at the hot corner in Triple-A at the time, it was basically Brandon Laird and Kevin Russo. Actions always speak louder than words.

(Photo via Syracuse Chiefs)

Now, that said, the Yankees should obviously give Mustelier a long look in Spring Training in a few weeks. He received all of two plate appearances in big league camp last year, one fewer than Austin Krum and half as many as Walt Ibarra. Mustelier just wrapped up a strong winter ball showing — .284/.345/.471 with nine homers and nine steals in 55 games down in Mexico — and finished the 2012 calendar year with a combined .304/.364/.482 batting line in over 700 plate appearances in three different leagues (Double-A, Triple-A, winter ball). When a guy that close to the big leagues hits like that, he deserves a look in camp. I definitely expect the Yankees to invite him to Major League Spring Training, for what it’s worth.

At the same time, a guy like Mustelier should not stop the team from pursuing solutions for those openings on the bench and at DH. It obviously hasn’t given the Matt Diaz and Russ Canzler pickups, but I’m talking about legitimate upgrades like Mike Morse or Scott Hairston. The Yankees should give him a look in camp to see what he can do, maybe he lost some weight and improved defensively during the offseason and made himself a viable option at second and third bases. Who knows. He’s earned the look though. Mustelier is not on the 40-man roster right now and the club won’t have to add him for another few years, so there’s no pressing roster issue that will force their hand. At the moment, Mustelier is an intriguing Plan B or C to keep in the minors. I wouldn’t want him to be Plan A for anything heading into 2013.

Aside: For what it’s worth, SG’s extremely early CAIRO projections have Mustelier as a .268/.321/.420 hitter in the big leagues next season. That’s really good for a bench player but not for a DH, which is where he’s slotted into the lineup in the projections.

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Poll: Internally Replacing Brett Gardner

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

The Yankees played their 60th game of the season last night and they’ve only had Brett Gardner in the starting lineup for eight of them. The elbow injury he suffered sliding for a ball against the Twins has morphed into a series of setbacks that culminated with a visit to Dr. James Andrews yesterday. Gardner will see Dr. Tim Kremcheck for a second opinion on Thursday, at which point the Yankees will presumably announce the latest diagnosis.

Barring some fortunate and frankly unexpected good news, Gardner is going to miss several more weeks. A few days ago Joe Girardi indicated that he doesn’t expect his left fielder back until after the All-Star break, which is still more than a month away. Raul Ibanez has been better than expected and softened the blow of losing Gardner a bit, but the Yankees can’t really rely on him as the everyday left fielder for an extended period of time. He’s already started 33 games in the field and at 40 years old, there has to be some concern about him wearing down later in the season.

Unless the Yankees get good news on Thursday, they have to at least consider bolstering their roster with Gardner on the shelf. With all due respect to Dewayne Wise, he’s nothing more than a defensive replacement/spot starter in the big leagues. The Yankees can do better without having to go outside the organization, they have some potential solutions sitting in Triple-A.

Chris Dickerson
I’ve written about Dickerson before, noting that he offers the ability to hit right-handed pitching (career .341 wOBA against northpaws) in addition to strong defense and base running skills. I don’t know if he’s a better defensive player than Wise but the difference isn’t worth arguing about. Dickerson can handle all three outfield spots with aplomb as well as contribute offensively with his bat and legs. The Yankees don’t have to play him every day in a straight platoon, but they could run him out there three times a week against righties while keeping Ibanez in the DH role. Cutting Wise in favor of Dickerson — who is out of minor league options and would have be waived whenever Gardner is healthy — is an upgrade in almost every single way.

Russell Branyan
Joe and I talked about this option on yesterday’s podcast. The idea would be to dump Wise, keep playing Ibanez in left, and use Branyan as the regular DH against right-handers. He’s come back very well from his back injury — six homers in 13 minor league games already — but it’s tough to consider him anything more than a first baseman/DH option. Branyan’s days of even faking third base and the corner outfield are a thing of the past. Adding a huge left-handed power bat lineup is obviously desirable, but it would leave the Yankees without a true backup center fielder and further limit roster flexibility.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning Jack Cust here, who is also raking in Triple-A but has yet to play a single game in the field. It’s been DH or the bench. At least Branyan has played first base pretty much every game.

(Rudy C. Jones/MiLB.com)

Ronnie Mustelier
The most interesting 27-year-old in the minor league system, Mustelier has been hitting non-stop since signing last summer and he’s now doing it at the Triple-A level. Joe Girardi raved about his bat speed recently and said his name has come up as a call-up candidate at various points this year … but that’s pretty much all we know about the guy. He’s small — listed at 5-foot-10 and 210 lbs. — and right-handed with phenomenal numbers, but we don’t know anything about his defensive skills or speed or anything else. Box scores only tell you so much. Mustelier has spent a ton of time in left field and also has experience in the infield, so his versatility as a plus. He’s not an ideal platoon candidate given his right-handedness, but he could also hit enough that it doesn’t even matter.

Eduardo Nunez
This one probably won’t happen for a number of reasons. For one, Nunez is currently on the minor league DL with a thumb issue. For another, the Yankees sent him to Triple-A to focus on one position after bouncing him all around the field over the last year or so. Calling Nunez back up to do anything — utility infielder, platoon left fielder, etc. — would go against that plan. That doesn’t mean it’s not an option, just that it seems unlikely. That said, we can’t rule anything out. Whenever Nunez gets healthy — probably soon since he was taking grounders just last week — he figures to at least be on the call-up radar.

Miscellaneous
As always, the top minor league affiliate is chock full of random call-up options. Brandon Laird is on the 40-man roster and can play all four corner spots, but he can’t hit — .251/.289/.393 in 870 total plate appearances in Triple-A. Corban Joseph has zero outfield experience so he’s of no use in this situation despite being on the 40-man. Colin Curtis is a solid enough defensive player and can play all three outfield spots, but he’s never been much with the stick. Kevin Russo can play all over the field and make some contact, but otherwise isn’t any kind of upgrade. Neither he nor Curtis is on the 40-man roster as well. Not much to see here.

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Of course, the Yankees always have the option of doing nothing and sticking with their current setup. Ibanez, Andruw Jones, and Jayson Nix could continue to take turns in left field while Wise gets nothing more than the occasional spot start. That’s  fine for two weeks or whatever, but I’d rather not see them roll with it for an extended period of time. It’s already been long enough as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, stuff is like this begging for a poll, so…

How should the Yankees replace Brett Gardner internally?
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Mailbag: Peavy, Mustelier, Jeter, Teixeira, Mo

Kind of a long mailbag this week, with five questions that cover everything from trade candidates to prospects to historical comparisons. Remember to use the Submit a Tip box in the sidebar to send us anything, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Peter asks: Mike, you wrote up Jake Peavy as a trade candidate on MLBTR a few weeks ago. Do you see the Yanks possibly targeting him in July? If so, what’s a fair price?

Here’s the link to that MLBTR post. Peavy, 30, has been one of the very best pitchers in baseball this season, pitching to a 1.89 ERA (2.22 FIP) with 7.57 K/9 (22.6 K%) and 1.20 BB/9 (3.6 BB%) in 52.1 IP across seven starts. He’s been absolutely phenomenal, no doubt about it, but there are still some red flags.

For one, Peavy’s recent injury history is quite scary. He’s been on the DL five times in the last four years, including lengthy stints for an elbow strain (2009), an ankle strain (2009), shoulder surgery (2010), and shoulder inflammation (2011). The shoulder surgery was not a typical labrum or rotator cuff issue, he torn his right lat muscle right off the bone. The injury is  rare and the medical procedure so unique that the recovery timetable was completely unknown. Peavy is showing now that he’s healthy, but the injury stuff has to be in the back of everyone’s mind.

Statistically there’s not much to worry about. He’s always been a fly ball pitcher but now he’s taken it to the extreme, with a 28.7% ground ball rate on the season. That explains his .234 BABIP to a certain extent and even though not every fly ball is hit deep, you have to assume his 2.8% HF/FB rate is going to correct at some point. That’s insanely low. Peavy’s salary — $17M this year with a $22M option for 2012 ($4M buyout) — is quite high as well.. I mentioned Erik Bedard as a trade comp in the MLBTR post, meaning one top-ten prospect (in a farm system, not all of baseball) and another Grade-C secondary piece could work as a trade bounty. The Yankees could have interest, and thankfully we have a few months to see if Peavy holds up physically and can maintain his performance before the deadline.

Willie and many others asked: Is it time to start getting a little excited about Ronnie Mustelier?

(Rudy C. Jones/MiLB.com)

I was surprised by how many people asked about Mustelier following his promotion to Triple-A earlier this week. We must have gotten at least ten questions about him, but I guess that’s what happens when a player hits .351/.397/.550 in 295 plate appearances since signing last summer.

Just some real quick background info: Mustelier is 27 years old (28 in August), short (5-foot-10), kinda fat (210 lbs.), a right-handed hitter, and versatile (has played second, third, and the outfield corners). He spent a number of years playing in Cuba before defecting, and as a hitter he makes consistent contact (13.2 K%) but doesn’t walk much (6.4 BB%) or steal bases (12-for-18). The Yankees like Mustelier enough that they sent him to the Arizona Fall League last year, where he hit .344/.354/.516 in 16 games while missing time with injury. Here’s some video.

The most important thing to understand is that Mustelier has been very old for his level since signing. This is an older guy pounding young pitchers and that can skew the results. The Yankees have done a good job getting him to Triple-A quickly so they can evaluate him against the best pitching in the minors, though I wouldn’t expect to see him in the big leagues anytime soon. Baseball America didn’t even have Mustelier on their 80-player Yankees prospect depth chart in the 2012 Prospect Handbook, so there’s a whole lot of unknown here. His versatility is a plus, but we need to see another few hundred minor league at-bats to know if there’s anything worthwhile here.

Arad asks: Had this argument with my brother, who is the better player over their careers using everything, Jeter or Honus Wagner? Thanks Mike!

Wagner is the greatest shortstop in baseball history and it’s not all that close. Obviously it was a much different era, but he hit .325/.392/.462 during his 16-year career despite not officially joining the big leagues until age-27. That’s worth 110.0 bWAR and only one other shortstop is over even 75 career bWAR (Cal Ripken Jr. at 90.9). Jeter is at 69.4 bWAR and counting. No version of WAR is perfect, but the gap between Wagner and everyone else is impossible to ignore.

Jeter is very clearly the best shortstop in Yankees history and is in the conversation for a top five spot all-time with Wagner, Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Arky Vaughan, and Luke Appling. Robin Yount and Alex Rodriguez deserve acknowledgement as well, though they both spent significant portions of their careers at other positions. Wagner’s the best shortstop ever though, very hard to dispute that.

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Alex asks: Mike, I read all the pieces you wrote about Mark Teixeira. One thing, which you addressed, slightly still interests me. Since Tex is a switch hitter, it seems like hitting righties from the right side is out of the question. But isn’t everyone a “switch hitter” to a degree? I bet A-Rod could turn around and produce a poor line from the left as well. Has any switch hitter ever became a one-side hitter? Will it hurt to try?

Here are those three posts on Teixeira (part one, two, three, four). I don’t know of any players who successfully dropped switch-hitting this late in their careers. Lots of guys stop switch-hitting in the minors, including Frankie Cervelli and Eduardo Nunez, but that’s very early in their careers. A lot of players mess around with switch-hitting in batting practice and may be able to survive on athleticism in a game situation, but I’d put money against it.

Teixeira’s been switch-hitting his entire life, going all the way back to high school. The guy has never been at the platoon disadvantage at a high level and he’s never seen a breaking ball that breaks away from him. If he were to stop hitting from the left side, he wouldn’t magically replicate his performance against lefties as a righty (.397 wOBA) as a righty against righties. If Teixeira’s offensive problems become so severe that dropping switch-hitting is being seriously discussed, it’s a transition that would have occur during the offseason and in Spring Training. I don’t see any way you could ask him to do that midseason and be productive. You’re setting him up for failure both short and long-term that way.

Jon asks: I literally got physically ill when I heard about Mariano Rivera‘s torn ACL. The question is does Mo fit into the new budget? Do they bring him back next year at $10-15 million if it costs them Cole Hamels?

Well the new budget doesn’t kick in until 2014 unless ownership decides to implement next season. That would suck. I can’t imagine any scenario in which Rivera gets a two-year contract after this season, not at his age and not coming off a major injury. In that sense they could pay him whatever and still sign Hamels knowing that Rivera and his salary will be gone in 2014, when the payroll tightens up. It would be a major surprise if Mo’s next contract somehow extends beyond next season.

I am curious to see how negotiations with Rivera play out this winter. Are the Yankees going to pay him the $15M+ next year just because he’s Mariano Rivera? Or will they try to scale it back a bit, maybe $10-12M given his age and injury? Considering that they offered Andy Pettitte eight figures this past December after he sat at home for a year, I’m willing to bet they’ll have no problem paying Mo something similar to, if not in excess of his current salary.

Four Yankees heading to Arizona Fall League (so far)

Rosters for the Arizona Fall League were released today, though not in their entirety. David Phelps, Corban Joseph, Rob Segedin, and Ronnier Mustelier are the four Yankees farmhands named to the Phoenix Desert Dogs roster so far, but they still have two or three spots to fill. Those will almost certainly be pitchers, but one will not be Graham Stoneburner.

Phelps’ assignment is completely expected after he missed all that time with the shoulder issue, he’s got innings to make up. CoJo’s been hitting well this year and it’s worth getting him the extra at-bats. Interestingly enough, Segedin’s on the roster as an outfielder, so perhaps a full blown transition is going to take place soon. Mustelier is the interesting guy. He’s an older dude (just turned 27) that signed out of Cuba this year, he’s been mashing nonstop since signing (.374/.421/.553 in 134 PA), and he’s played five positions (second, third, and all three outfield spots). It’s unlikely they’d send filler to the AzFL, and I wonder if he’s got a chance to a righty bench bat in the future. We’ll see.