Now that I’m over at Steinbrenner Field all the time, I really don’t get to spend much time at the Yankees minor league complex. But I like it over there. It’s very structured for the players — they have to be a very specific places to do very specific things at very specific times — but for everyone else, there’s a kind of relaxed looseness about it. A game on one field, live batting practice on another, a few guys taking ground balls on another. Today I literally watched the major-league No. 3 starter pitch against a 17-year-old kid. Total mismatch for sure, but still fascinating in its own way.
I realize minor league notes aren’t for everyone, but today’s an off day in big league camp, so here’s a bunch of stuff I learned over at the minor league complex. Most of this comes from vice president of baseball operations, Mark Newman. Unless specifically noted, none of this is speculation. It’s all stuff I was told by a Yankees official today.
· Wondering about last year’s spring favorite Ronnier Mustelier? He didn’t get an invitation to big league camp, and he couldn’t have played even if he had been invited. Musterlier has a hamstring injury and hasn’t played this spring. Newman said Mustelier hurt himself while playing winter ball in Mexico, but that wasn’t necessarily the reason Mustelier wasn’t invited to big league camp. “I’m not sure which came first,” Newman said. Interestingly, Mustelier played a whopping 55 games in Mexico and then actually went to the Dominican Republic to play seven games for Licey in the playoffs.
· Eased into games because of that sort right wrist, outfield prospect Tyler Austin played in a simulated game this morning and expects to play in a full game tomorrow. He’s been hitting and fielding, including time as both a right fielder and a third baseman. Austin said he expects to primarily play right field this year, but the Yankees want him to get some time at third again for the added versatility.
· Center fielder Slade Heathcott still has not played in a game this spring. He’s been eased into activity because of last year’s knee surgery. Heathcott said when he was in big league camp that he did not expect to be active on Opening Day, but he expects to be activated soon after. “He’s getting closer,” Newman said. “He’s taking full BP. He’s running. He’s getting there.”
· Still coming back from that oblique injury, right-handed pitcher Jose Ramirez is playing catch but isn’t pitching in games. The Yankees have decided to move Ramirez full-time to the bullpen in an effort to keep him healthy. One evaluator compared him to Fernando Rodney because of his fastball/changeup combination. The Yankees think Ramirez could be extremely effective and move quickly as a reliever.
· Last year’s Kevin Lawn Player of the Year, Greg Bird, will not be healthy enough to open the season. Bird was playing earlier this spring, but he’s currently shut down with a lower back issue. Doesn’t sound too serious, but it’s serious enough that Bird probably won’t break camp. “I don’t see any way he will,” Newman said.
· First-round pick from 2012, Ty Hensley, is not pitching because of hernia surgery. Newman said he expects Hensley to be throwing again in roughly three or four weeks.
· Shut down in big league camp because of some tightness in his arm, Nik Turley is still not pitching in minor league camp. No word on how much longer he’ll be out.
· Not a huge-name prospect, but one who seems to have some believers, utility man Anderson Feliz is not playing this spring because of strained flexor muscle in his elbow. Feliz also had an elbow issue last year. “This is different,” Newman said. “He had elbow surgery last year.”
OPENING DAY ASSIGNMENTS
· Although he was technically optioned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, right-hander Bryan Mitchell was the starting pitcher for Double-A Trenton this morning. Newman said the plan is for Mitchell to go back to Double-A this season. Played only three games there last year.
· Today’s High-A Tampa lineup had last year’s top pick Eric Jagielo batting third and playing designated hitter while 2011 first-rounder Dante Bichette Jr. hit cleanup and playing third base. I can’t imagine that will be the regular setup during the regular season — I would guess that Jagielo is the priority at third, though no one has told me that — but Newman said it is likely that both Jagielo and Bichette will open with Tampa this season. Those are two fairly significantly investments for one position on one team.
· A first-round pick out of high school last season, Ian Clarkin has looked “really good” according to Newman. The plan is to get Clarkin to Charleston at some point, but he might initially stay behind for extended spring training. “We just need to build up his innings total a little bit,” Newman said.
· The Yankees were talking about having Aaron Judge open the season in High-A Tampa, but it now sounds like he could instead begin his pro career in Low-A Charleston. “He hasn’t played a (regular season) game yet,” Newman said. “We’ll figure it out later this week.” Opening his first full season in Charleston would not be unusual, even for a guy drafted out of college. The idea of pushing Judge to Tampa was pretty aggressive. Newman indicated that the possibility of keeping Judge in Charleston is not an injury issue. “Judge is ready to rock and roll,” Newman said.
· Today’s starting shortstop for Low-A Charleston was Tyler Wade, last year’s fourth-round pick out of high school who played well in rookie ball with a few at-bats in Staten Island. But Wade might not be with Charleston when the season opens. Newman said it looks like Abiatal Avelino — arguably the system’s top shortstop prospect — will be the Charleston shortstop this season. Wade would then stay behind so that he can keep playing the position regularly before eventually going to Staten Island as the everyday shortstop. “We’ve got to figure it out,” Newman said. “They’re both at the same level. One of them is going to play in Charleston and one of them is going to be in (Staten Island). We haven’t figured that out yet.”
· If the Yankees choose to keep all four of Michael Pineda, David Phelps, Adam Warren and Vidal Nuno on the big league roster, Newman said the minor league system will have absolutely no trouble filling the Triple-A rotation. Bruce Billings was the Triple-A starter today, and Chase Whitley will be their starter tomorrow. My guess is that Shane Greene could also factor in that mix after impressing in big league camp. Eventually guys like Turley and Manny Banuelos could be there as well. “We’ve got more pitching there,” Newman said. “We’ve got a lot.”
· Asked who stands out in minor league camp so far, Newman’s first words were: “Angelo Gumbs has played really well.” The second baseman for the Tampa squad has battled a series of injury problems, but Newman has always spoken very highly of Gumbs. The Yankees like his athleticism. He can do a little bit of everything when he’s healthy.
· Another standout from Newman: “Gary Sanchez has been great,” he said. “I thought he did well with the big club. I think he’s made a leap forward.” I believe Sanchez took his only at-bats in a simulated game today. He wasn’t in either of the other games.
· The final player Newman singled out as a spring standout was Low-A catcher Luis Torrens. He’s the 17-year-old I mentioned who was facing off against Nova. The kid had two hits! Granted, he struck out flailing at a breaking ball in his third at-bat, but Torrens shouldn’t have stood a chance again against a guy at Nova’s level. Pretty impressive. “This kid Luis Torrens looks like a stud,” Newman said.
· Noticed a smaller guy pitching well in the Class-A intrasquad game. Senior pitching instructor Nardi Contreras said it was Chad Taylor, a non-drafted free agent who was both a pitcher and a hitter at the University of South Florida. Contreras said Taylor had “opened some eyes” this spring with a fastball that gets up to 94 mph.
· While I was talking to Contreras, he pointed to the end of the bench where a big guy was sitting and talking to some teammates. Contreras told me to remember the name Rony Bautista, who’s been nicknamed “CC” around the complex. He’s a big lefty with a slider, changeup and mid-90s fastball. Apparently he’s looked good this spring.
· Not really a standout, but a guy I’d never heard of until today is RJ Johnson, the big guy who was playing first base — and, honestly, playing it pretty poorly — for the Low-A squad this morning. Why playing it poorly? Turns out, Johnson used to be a pitcher in the Brewers system and he hasn’t appeared in a professional game since 2010. The Yankees are giving him a look as a hitter, recognizing that it’s going to be a work in progress for a while. I’ve heard he’s actually been hitting the ball pretty well this spring. “Just going to see what happens,” Newman said. “It’s kind of a trial.” I saw Johnson field a couple of routine grounders, and I never saw him miss a throw to first base, but he did blow his assignment on a ground ball to the right side, and he totally missed a pop up. The guy looks like a hitter, though. Big dude. Listed at 6-foot-5.
Associated Press photos