Yankees add Austin, Burawa, Pinder, Williams to 40-man roster; sell Zelous Wheeler’s right to team in Japan

Bye Zelous. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)
Bye Zelous. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

The Yankees have added outfielder Tyler Austin, right-hander Danny Burawa, right-hander Branden Pinder, and outfielder Mason Williams to the 40-man roster, the team announced. Today was the deadline to set the 40-man for the Rule 5 Draft and all four players would have been eligible. The Yankees have also sold utility man Zelous Wheeler‘s rights to the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. There are currently 38 players on the 40-man roster, meaning New York can select up to two players in the Rule 5 Draft.

Adding Austin to the 40-man was the only no-brainer of the bunch. He had a huge second half with Double-A Trenton this summer and continued to rake in the Arizona Fall League. He played through a bone bruise in his wrist almost all of last year and again earlier this year, but it appears he’s over it and had gotten back to where he was when he was one of the team’s top prospects a year or two ago. Austin figures to open the 2015 season with Triple-A Scranton and could get called up at some point. If nothing else, he should be a September call-up.

Burawa is a pure reliever and has some of the nastiest stuff in the system with a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a vicious slider. He does have control problems (13.2% walk rate the last two years) and had to be demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Trenton this summer, but the Yankees have had some success figuring these guys out, with Shane Greene being a primary example. Pinder is another pure reliever whose stuff isn’t as electric as Burawa’s, but he had an excellent season in 2014. He is primarily a fastball-slider guy. Both Burawa and Pinder are expected to open 2015 with the RailRiders and could make their MLB debuts later in the season.

Williams both is and isn’t a surprising addition to the 40-man roster. Surprising because he’s been flat out terrible for two years running now — he hit .223/.290/.304 (66 wRC+) in 563 plate appearances with the Thunder this past season — and there are reports of major maturity and work ethic issues. Those guys usually aren’t rewarded with 40-man spots. It’s unsurprising because Williams is a top flight defender in center field and has high-end tools. He was arguably the organization’s top prospect two years ago. The Yankees are obviously hoping he grows up a bit and unlocks some of his potential.

Among the players the Yankees opted not to protect from the Rule 5 Draft are first baseman Kyle Roller, left-hander Matt Tracy, and right-handers Mark Montgomery and Zach Nuding. All three pitchers could get selected. Montgomery’s stuff has gone backwards the last two years but his slider still misses bats. Nuding throws hard and Tracy is both breathing and left-handed. As a reminder, any player selected in the Rule 5 Draft must remain on his new team’s active 25-man roster all season, or be placed on waivers and offered back to his old team before going to the minors.

As for Wheeler, the Yankees didn’t sell his rights to Rakuten — Masahiro Tanaka‘s former team — without his knowledge or out of the blue. Almost always in these situations, the player asked the team for permission to pursue a job overseas and has a contract lined up with a new club. Wheeler presumably did that and the Yankees let him go as a courtesy while also pocketing a little extra cash. Win-win for everyone.

Update: The Yankees received $350,000 for Wheeler’s rights, according to Mark Feinsand.

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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.

Update: Yankees call up Zelous Wheeler, send down Chase Whitley

10:39am: Whitley has been sent down to Triple-A Scranton to make room on the roster for Wheeler. Rosters expand in ten days, so he’ll be back before you know it.

10:36am: The Yankees have called up utility man Zelous Wheeler, according to the various reporters in the clubhouse. No word on the corresponding move yet, though I assume the team is dropping one of their eight relievers. Rich Hill or Chase Whitely seems likely. Carlos Beltran received a cortisone shot in his elbow yesterday and will miss a few games, so Wheeler gives them an extra bench player. I suppose there’s a chance Beltran is heading to the disabled list. We’ll see.

Yankees send Zoilo Almonte and Zelous Wheeler to Triple-A

As expected, the Yankees have sent outfielder Zoilo Almonte and utility man Zelous Wheeler to Triple-A Scranton. The moves clear room on the active roster for Stephen Drew and Martin Prado. The Yankees still need to clear a spot for righty Esmil Rogers, who is joining the bullpen. Chase Whitley is a candidate to be sent down, where he would be able to stay stretched out as the de facto sixth starter. We’ll find out soon enough.

Update: Disregard, I’m an idiot. Brian Roberts being designated for assignment clears the roster spot for Rogers, so the Yankees are carrying eight relievers at the moment.

2014 Midseason Grades: The Infielders

Even though it is not really the halfway point of the season, there is no better time to review the first half than the All-Star break. This week we’ll hand out some simple and straightforward grades, A through F, for the catchers, infielders, outfielders, rotation, and bullpen. These grades are totally subjective. We started yesterday with the catchers, now let’s move on to the infielders.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Mark Teixeira — Grade B (A+ for Foul Territory)

There were a lot of questions about the infield coming into the season in general, but especially Teixeira. The Yankees’ first baseman missed almost all of last season due to a tendon sheath injury in his wrist that eventually required surgery, and wrist surgery can be very problematic even after the player has been cleared to play. Remember, Teixeira started Spring Training late and has still felt soreness during the season. It has caused him to miss a game or two here and there. (His only DL stint was hamstring related.)

Despite that, Teixeira has been the team’s most consistent and productive power hitter this summer, coming into the All-Star break with a .241/.341/.464 (120 wRC+) batting line with a team-leading 17 homers. His power output (.222 ISO) is right in line with his last full healthy season (.224 ISO in 2012), which is definitely encouraging after the wrist surgery. Most importantly, he’s done most of his damage against right-handed pitchers (130 wRC+), who used to give him the most trouble. Is he Teixeira of old? No, of course not. That guy isn’t coming back. But he’s returned to his pre-surgery ways and been a much-needed force in the middle of the lineup.

Weirdly enough, the biggest issue for Teixeira this season has been his defense. He’s already committed six errors this season, his most since 2004, and while errors are not the best way to evaluate defense, most of them were plays we’re used to seeing Teixeira make. I think his scooping at first has been fine. It’s the hard-hit balls he used to turn into outs that are now eating him up. I think it’s a combination of rust from the lost 2013 season and a decline in his skills. Either way, Teixeira has definitely been a positive for the Yankees this year, especially when you consider he’s coming off major surgery.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Brian Roberts — Grade C

There was no way the Yankees were not going to have a massive drop off in production at second base this year. Robinson Cano was the best player at the position last year and has been for several years running, so by definition he is irreplaceable. Roberts was not exactly a popular choice as Cano’s replacement given his long injury history and the fact that he wasn’t all that productive even when healthy ways. The Yankees love veterans though, especially AL East proven guys.

Roberts has remained remarkably healthy so far this year — he missed a handful of games with a back issue in April, but that’s it — while being more than a total zero at the plate. His .241/.306/.376 (87 wRC+) batting line comes with the occasional homer (five), the occasional stolen bases (seven), the occasional walk (8.4%), and always a very long at-bat (4.04 pitches per plate appearance). Roberts has been fine defensively at second if not an asset. He’s a perfectly capable stopgap and No. 9 hitter who has been asked to bear more responsibility. Will Roberts hit a wall later in the year after not playing a full season since 2009? I have a hard time thinking his second half will be better than his first, honestly.

Derek Jeter — Grade C

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Like Teixeira, Jeter was coming off a major injury. He missed just about all of last season with a series of leg problems, including a twice-fractured ankle. Add in the fact that he is a 39-year-old shortstop — a demographic that is not well-represented throughout history — and things were definitely stacked against the Cap’n coming into 2014.

Jeter’s season has been underwhelming statistically but I don’t it’s worst case scenario stuff. Like I said, a 39-year-old shortstop coming off a major leg injury could have been really, really ugly. Jeter is hitting .272/.324/.322 (80 wRC+) overall, so his power is non-existent, but he does rank third among qualified AL shortstops in OBP and is only five points away from leading. Is it vintage Jeter? Absolutely not. But relative to the league average shortstop (.308 OBP and 87 wRC+), he’s been passable.

Defensive is another matter. Jeter’s glovework has never been good and at this point he’s barely mobile. The old “he makes the plays on the balls he gets to” rhetoric doesn’t even apply anymore. He’s booted more grounders and made more offline throws this season than I can ever remember. Inside Edge data says he has converted only 46.2% of “likely” plays into outs, which are defined as plays that would be make 60-90% of the time on average. He hasn’t make anything tougher than an “even” play (40-60%) either. It’s been ugly.

The total package, offense plus defense, has not been good for the Yankees this year. At the same time, I’m generously giving Jeter a C instead of a D or F because he has played better than I expected coming off the ankle injury at his age. Maybe I’m just a giant homer. The Cap’n has not been good this season though, certainly not by his standards, but it could have been much worse given everything that happened last year.

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Kelly Johnson — Grade D

The Yankees have put Johnson in a tough spot for most of the year — playing once or twice a week, usually at an unfamiliar position like first or third base — but, at the same time, he knew what he was walking into when he signed as a free agent over the winter. He has hit .214/.299/.380 (87 wRC+) with six homers in 211 plate appearances, including a disappointing 83 wRC+ against righties and an even more disappointing 87 wRC+ at Yankee Stadium. Five of his six long balls have come in the Bronx.

Johnson’s defense has been a problem, though again, he has mostly played out of position — he came into the season with only 18 innings at first base and 118 innings at third base. He has spent 199.2 innings at first and 255.1 innings at third this year, committing nine total errors and not looking particularly graceful either. Johnson was a shrewd signing and a wonderful fit for the roster on paper — left-handed hitter with power who can play the three non-shortstop infield positions as well as left field — but it just hasn’t worked out halfway through the season.

Yangervis Solarte — Grade B

Man those first eight or so weeks were fun, weren’t they? I like to think I’m well-versed in the minor leagues but even I had not heard of Solarte before the Yankees signed him as a minor league free agent over the winter. It goes without saying that no one expected to take over as the starting third baseman for the first eight weeks of the season, during which he hit .299/.368/.458 (128 wRC+) in 229 plate appearances. Solarte was a godsend for a beleaguered offense.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The Solarte Partay came to crashing halt after that, unfortunately. He has hit .111/.238/.130 (10 wRC+!) in 63 plate appearances since, earning him a demotion to Triple-A Scranton. Yangervis has owns a .255/.338/.382 (101 wRC+) line in 288 trips to the plate overall and holy crap, no one expected that. Even if he never hits again, those first eight weeks made the signing more than worth it. That’s even considering Solarte’s occasionally shaky defense. He was a great story and a tremendously productive player into early-June. His days as a useful MLB player may have already come to an end, but boy did Solarte contribute in a big way when given an opportunity early this season.

Brendan Ryan — Grade C

Giving Ryan two years plus a player option this past offseason definitely flies under the radar as a lolwtf offseason move. I mean, yeah, I get it. Jeter was a major question mark, but geez. Ryan spent the first five weeks of the season on the disabled list with a back injury, and he’s nothing more than a no-bat (.235/.273/.255, 43 wRC+ in 55 PA), good but no longer elite glove infielder who plays maybe once a week. It’s far from the best use of the roster spot, but the Yankees are stuck with him. It’s just a weird fit. Even weirder are all those times Ryan played first base while Jeter manned short. He’s fine as the 24th man on the roster. Just a pricey and not at all versatile (in terms of bringing different things to the table) insurance policy for Jeter in his final season.

Zelous Wheeler, Dean Anna, Scott Sizemore — incomplete

These three guys have combined for 61 total plate appearances — Anna has the most at 25 — and have hit a combined .232/.246/.438. Most of the power production comes from Wheeler, who has hit two homers in his 20 plate appearances. He is currently with the team in that revolving door 25th man spot while Sizemore is stashed in Triple-A awaiting an injury. Anna has already been designated for assignment (to make room on the roster for Zelous) and claimed off waivers from the Pirates. I wonder how many more guys will cycle through this role in the second half.

* * *

There were some serious concerns about the infield coming into the season. Teixeira and Jeter were huge question marks following their injuries and the same was true of Roberts given his history. Johnson was the sure thing on the infield at the start of camp. The defense has been hideous — Yankees’ pitchers have a .258 BABIP on ground balls, the seventh highest in baseball (league average is .244), and even more grounders would sneak through for hits if not for the club’s aggressive shifting — and that was fairly predictable.

The infield has, by and large, been more productive than I expected, mostly because Solarte was awesome for a while and Teixeira has shown no lingering issues with the wrist when it comes to raw production. Roberts is the new Lyle Overbay — the best of all the bad players and therefore giving off the appearance of being good — and Jeter’s Jeter. He’s untouchable. The Yankees have some internal options who may improve the infield, namely Triple-A Scranton second baseman Rob Refsnyder, but either way¬† it’s clear they could use some help in the second half. Beefing up third base is an obvious upgrade area.