A few minor league notes and observations as we wrap up the month of April…
• I was off this weekend when the Yankees released minor league starter Nik Turley. The team needed to open a 40-man spot for Chris Leroux, and I assume they’re trying to pull off the same maneuver that they used to get David Adams off the 40-man roster last year. Basically, there’s little chance Turley would have cleared waivers — he’s 24 years old coming off a decent year in Double-A — but he’s also been hurt since spring training, and the Yankees would seem to have a decent chance of getting him back on a minor league deal. Not sure it’s a slam dunk, but 40-man issues get quirky from time to time.
• Speaking of Turley, it’s interesting that the Yankees opened the season with essentially three different long relievers in the big league bullpen — Adam Warren, Vidal Nuno, David Phelps — but have spent recent weeks scrambling to add long men. Warren moved into a short-relief setup role, Nuno moved into the rotation, and Phelps has been used in basically every role imaginable. Chris Leroux has the job right now, but it’s worth noting that Chase Whitley went five scoreless in each of his past two Triple-A starts, and that Alfredo Aceves has pitched nine innings without allowing a run (he’s starting again tonight). The revolving door could open for one of those two at some point.
• Spring standout Zelous Wheeler was activated from the Triple-A disabled list today. He was hitting .421/.476/.684 in seven games before getting hurt, but he might have been activated a little too late to take full advantage of the Yankees early infield needs. Earlier in the season, the Yankees 40-man was thin on infield depth. That’s when they added Scott Sizemore for a few days. Now the team has Ryan almost ready to be activated, plus both Sizemore and Dean Anna on the 40-man and waiting in Triple-A for another opportunity. Wheeler’s played well, but he’s probably third on the infield call-up depth chart at the moment (fourth if you count Ryan).
• The Yankees entire Triple-A roster has hit just nine home runs this season, and only one player has more than one homer. Zoilo Almonte has gone deep five times, including a home run in two of his past three games. That’s oddly the one thing that stands out about him. He has only one other extra-base hit, he has 21 strikeouts with five walks, his on-base percentage is .293 and he’s been thrown out in two of his four stolen base attempts. Weirdest stat of all for Almonte: He’s hitting .345/.390/.636 against right handers, but he’s literally hitting .000/.043/.000 against lefties. He’s walked once against a left-hander, but he’s otherwise 0-for-22 with seven strikeouts. He’s always been better against righties, but that’s pretty extreme.
• Now that the Yankees seem to have regained some faith in Preston Claiborne and added Matt Daley to the 40-man roster, Mark Montgomery wouldn’t seem to be particularly close to a call-up. He’s still an interesting relief prospect, though. Coming off his first rocky season, Montgomery has returned to Triple-A where opponents are hitting just .135 against him. He’s struck out 12 in 11 innings — not the rate he was putting up in the low minors, but still awfully good — but he’s walked six already, including two in each of his past two outings. This time last year Montgomery seemed like he might be on the fast track, but now he’s kind of reestablishing himself.
• After getting off to a rough start in Double-A, second base prospect Rob Refsnyder has gotten his bat going. He was hitting just .154 through his first 11 games, but Refsnyder had two hits in his 12th game and three hits in his 13th. He’s now up to .282/.356/.410. In his past 13 games, Refsnyder has walked seven times and struck out five times. The ratio was skewed the other way when the season started. He’s also made just two errors so far, which doesn’t seem too bad for a guy relatively new to the position.
• Offensive firepower in Trenton comes from No. 3 hitter Rob Segedin and cleanup hitter Gary Sanchez. Hitting back-to-back in the order, Segedin has a .308/.448/.500 slash line with more walks (13) than strikeouts (7), while Sanchez his hitting .299/.382/.493 with five RBI in his past two games. Sanchez is simply continuing to establish himself as a standout bat in the minor league system, while Segedin is doing his part to get back on the radar after a season lost to injury.
• A Double-A pitcher to keep in mind: Reliever Branden Pinder has always been a legitimate bullpen prospect, and this year he’s off to a tremendous start in Trenton. After struggling a little bit at that level last season, Pinder has allowed just four hits and one walk through 11 innings out of the Trenton bullpen. He’s struck out 10, and his only walk and two of those hits came in his first appearance of the year. He has yet to be charged with a run. Pinder’s a big dude. Worth keeping in mind as at least a Triple-A possibility for later this year.
• Last year’s Yankees breakout star was Peter O’Brien, and he’s kept pace so far this season. Getting a little bit of time in right field — but still mostly catching — O’Brien is hitting .354/.388/.759 through 79 at-bats with High-A Tampa. He has two hits in each of his past four games, and he’s homered in two of his past three. He’s a huge guy who seemed to make a positive impression by the way he carried himself in big league camp this spring. I have no idea where he’ll ultimately play — defense has long been a question with him — but so far, the bat is impossible to ignore.
• Given another shot at the High-A level, Rafael De Paula seems to have made some improvements this season. Through his first five starts, De Paula has a 2.96 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 33 strikeouts through 24.1 innings. De Paula put up numbers like that in Low-A Charleston last season, but he struggled after a mid-season bump up to Tampa. Also in this year’s Tampa rotation, Manny Banuelos has a 0.95 WHIP through five starts, but the Yankees have yet to let him go more than three innings. He’s had one bad start — four runs in two-thirds of an inning — but the other four have been outstanding. Not as recognizable of a name, but Eric Wooten has a 1.21 WHIP out of that Tampa rotation while five different relievers have sub-1.00 WHIPs. As a team, that Tampa staff as a 3.22 ERA this season.
• Down in Low-A Charleston, starting pitcher Caleb Smith has been named the South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week after a career-high 13 strikeouts through six shutout innings. It was the most strikeouts in one game for a RiverDogs pitcher since the team became a Yankees affiliate in 2005. Smith has a 0.89 ERA through his first four starts this season, and pitching performances like that have been an early trend in Charleston. Emerging prospect Luis Severino has a 1.89 ERA through five starts and relievers Philip Walby, Cesar Vargas and Nick Rumbelow are each striking out well over a batter per inning.
• Not at all the first month that I was expecting from Aaron Judge. One of last year’s top draft picks has been awfully good as Charleston’s everyday right fielder, but he’s done it with a .333 batting average, .451 on-base percentage and only four extra base hits through 75 at-bats. Judge’s high-profile upside seems to be built around his power potential, but right now he’s been more of a steady and patient hitter than a true slugger. I’m guessing the power will come — it’s hard to see this kid in person and not imagine him hitting Darryl Strawberry-like homers — but so far he’s been a different kind of really good hitter.
• Worth mentioning that Charleston’s shortstop duo of Tyler Wade and Abiatal Avelino has been awfully good early in the season. In spring training Mark Newman told me he expected one of those two — probably Wade — to stay behind in extended spring so that both could keep playing shortstop, but it seems Wade played his way onto the Charleston roster. He’s hit .292/.373/.333 while getting time at second and short. Avelino, who’s probably the team’s top shortstop prospect at this point, is hitting .286/.348/.369 with nine stolen bases. Their middle-infield partner Gosuke Katoh has struggled after last year’s standout debut. He’s struck out 31 times in 18 games, and he’s hitting .175/.333/.281.
• Looking for an early surprise in the minor league system? Check out Charleston first baseman Mike Ford, who signed as a non-drafted free agent last season and has gotten off to a .343/.405/.500 start in Low-A. He didn’t hit a ton in his half season last year, but he did draw a lot of walks. I’d never heard of the kid until I started noticing his numbers a few weeks ago. If he keeps this up, I’m not sure what the Yankees will do with him. I assume Greg Bird will be activated in Tampa fairly soon, and that Tampa team is already giving its regular DH at-bats to Bichette. Could be just a small-sample quirk, but it’s always interesting to see a guy kind of show up out of nowhere and play well. Stay tuned.
Associated Press photos of Turley and Almonte; headshots of Pinder, De Paula and Judge