The Yankees offense spent the past week and a half struggling to drive in runs, and in that time, it became obvious that the organization had no one tucked away in Triple-A who could provide an immediate and definite spark. Steve Pearce is hitting for power and driving in runs, but his big league track record is underwhelming. Kevin Russo is hitting for average and playing all over the field, but he’s more of a useful utility man than an offensive catalyst.
Then there’s Ronnier Mustelier.
“He doesn’t have much time in U.S. baseball yet, but he can hit,” vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said.
Time might prove that Mustelier is an unknown for a reason. After all, he’s 27 years old with barely 300 at-bats in the United States, but the Cuban utility man is hitting .313/.347/.522 with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He put up a similar slash line in his U.S. debut last summer, then the Yankees sent him to the Arizona Fall League this offseason, and they were quick to promote him from Double-A to Triple-A this month. He’s played second base, third base and all three outfield positions.
In some ways, Mustelier’s rise reminds me of Alfredo Aceves in 2008: He’s a little old for a prospect, but he has experience in another country and he’s moving very quickly through the system. When Aceves made his Triple-A debut, he was two years younger than Mustelier is today, but the point remains. Some of these off-the-radar guys can emerge to be real big league role players, and so far, Mustelier is making his case.
“He wasn’t one of those high-profile signees that everybody writes about and talks about,” Newman said. “… He’s got some things to learn, he’s got some skills to polish, but he’s got some ability. I think he can help.”
• Manny Banuelos and Jose Campos are both on the disabled list because of elbow injuries, but the Yankees aren’t sure yet whether the situations are similar. Banuelos still has more tests planned. “They both have to do with the elbow pain or discomfort or whatever,” Newman said. “But I don’t know that they come about from the same reason. … There’s always concern. I wouldn’t say there’s more or less with either.”
• The Yankees know more about the Campos injury than the Banuelos injury, so they can say more about it. Newman said he’s encouraged by the fact Campos has no problem with the ligament, which mean it doesn’t currently look like a Tommy John risk. No word on when Campos will be able to pitch again. His last start was April 28.
• Center fielder Slade Heathcott is progressing after shoulder surgery, but he’s still not playing the field in extended spring training. Heathcott is strictly a DH because the Yankees don’t want him to go overboard trying to make throws from the outfield. “But he’s swinging the bat well,” Newman said. “Looks like he hasn’t skipped a beat since the last time I saw him.”
• Newman guessed that Heathcott is still three to four weeks away from joining the Tampa roster. He’s playing in games, but that doesn’t mean he’s close to being activated.
• Another center field prospect, Ravel Santana, is also making progress but remains several weeks away from joining an active roster. Santana has recovered from his foot injury and he’s playing in extended spring training — he was shut down for about a week because of a stomach problem — but the Yankees still plan to have him join short-season Staten Island. It’s unlikely he’ll go anywhere before that season starts.
• I might write a little more about this tomorrow while we’re waiting for that late-night West Coast game, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Newman more upbeat about a player than he was Mark Montgomery who continues to dominate out of the Tampa bullpen. He’s 7-for-7 in save opportunities with 34 strikeouts and seven walks in 21.2 innings. One of those walks was intentional. “This guy is worth paying attention to,” Newman said. Montgomery was an 11th-round draft pick last year, but based on the way the Yankees have treated some other college relievers, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Montgomery pushed to Double-A soon. In fact, I’ll be surprised if he’s not. He has fast-mover written all over him.
• Another name Newman is excited about — can’t be surprised by this one — is Charleston right fielder Tyler Austin. He’s working on an eight-game hitting streak right now, which is somewhat hiding the fact he’s struggled a little bit in the month of May. Overall, though, Austin is hitting .287/.353/.647 with a league-leading 13 homers, and Newman says the move to right field is going “very well,” noting that Austin runs well and has a strong arm.
• Two of Austin’s teammates aren’t enjoying the same success. Former top picks Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr. are off to slow starts in Charleston. Culver has 11 steals and a solid .343 on-base percentage, but he’s hitting just .221 with no real power. Bichette is hitting just .235 and still waiting for his first home run. “(Bichette)’s adjusting to the league,” Newman said. “He’s a young guys and he will adjust. He’s hitting better week by week. … We’re looking at the process. Those guys are going to be good players. We don’t take their temperature every three weeks.”
• When I asked Newman for an upper-level player who’s caught his attention lately, I didn’t expect Melky Mesa to be his answer. But sure enough, though, Mesa’s hitting .274 this month and he’s still showing good power for a guy who can run and play a good center field.
• Once considered a pretty big prospect with the Padres, Matt Antonelli has reported to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after being claimed off waivers over the weekend. He played all four infield positions and a little left field with Norfolk earlier this season, and the Yankees have used him at second and short, basically shifting Russo into regular duty in center field.
• Looking for a new set of Killer B’s? With Banuelos on the disabled list, Dellin Betances struggling and Andrew Brackman gone, feel free to focus on Brett Marshall (2.98 ERA in Trenton), Bryan Mitchell (2.53 ERA and a .192 opponents batting average in Charleston) and Mikey O’Brien (an under-the-radar guy who allowed one run on three hits through seven innings in his Double-A debut last week).
• Notable player moves: Manny Delcarmen has come off the Triple-A disabled list, and he’s still pitching extremely well with a 0.95 WHIP. The Yankees seem to really like Cody Eppley‘s ability to get ground balls against right-handers, but Delcarmen’s doing enough to be on the radar. … Caleb Cotham has been promoted from Charleston to Tampa, and he allowed one run through six innings in his High-A debut. He had a 2.31 ERA through eight Low-A starts. … After opening the season in extended spring training because of an injury (I honestly don’t remember what it was) Matt Tracy jumped straight into the Tampa rotation last week. He’s allowed one earned run through his first two starts. Quite a few base-runners on Saturday, but still not bad for his first taste of full-season hitters. … Also out of extended spring training, Evan Rutckyj has joined the Charleston rotation and pitched five shutout innings in his debut on Sunday. He gave up two hits, no walks and struck out eight.
• I can’t tell you one thing about Francisco Arcia. I remember seeing him this spring because I remember talking to Patrick Teale about him, but I’ve never mentioned his name to a single person in the organization. All I know is this: He’s the backup catcher in Charleston and he’s hitting .442/.500/.769 through 52 at-bats. Gary Sanchez is the starter down there, and he’s also been terrific, so it doesn’t seem likely that Arcia is pushing for an everyday job. I will say this, again, knowing no specifics of the situation: There’s always a reason a player isn’t given regular playing time. If the Yankees believed Arcia were really this kind of hitter, he’d be playing every day somewhere.
• Finally, here’s a comparison you’ll probably like. The Yankees top starting pitcher in High-A has been lefty Nik Turley, the former 50th-round pick who has a 3.05 ERA with 45 strikeouts through eight starts. “He’s a big, strong guy,” Newman said. “Kind of built like Andy Pettitte, and he does a lot of things like Andy did when Andy was a young guy.” Among those similarities, Newman said, were Turley’s work-ethic and general good-guy persona. Turns out, Pettitte and Turley actually worked together quite a bit while Pettitte was down in Tampa earlier this season.
Associated Press photo of Mustelier, headshots of Campos, Banuelos,