I have no statistics to support this claim, but I’ve spent a little more than a decade covering baseball, and this seems to be true: For a player like Ronnier Mustelier, the window for advancing to the big leagues with a particular team is incredibly small. It might open for only a moment before slamming shut, and taking advantage of that limited opportunity is a matter of production, timing and luck.
For Mustelier, the window to play for the Yankees seemed to open early last year. And, of course, he was hurt at the time. It slammed shut again this winter, and on Tuesday Mustelier was released so that the Yankees could give his Triple-A at-bats to players who had, quite frankly, become higher priorities.
“There just weren’t at-bats for Mustelier there,” vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said. “He’ll get a chance somewhere. He’s not a bad player at all.”
Mustelier became an oddly popular minor league player at least partially because he was fun and easy to root for. He had an unusual background as an older prospect from Cuba. He seemed to come out of nowhere to put up strong numbers almost immediately. He climbed through the system quickly. He could play a lot of positions, including third base, which carried a lot of long-term and short-term uncertainty for the organization.
When Mustelier had that great spring training in 2013, and Joe Girardi started calling him “Musty,” this squat little guy with an unusual name and impressive minor league numbers seemed to have a real chance of playing in New York.
By the end of spring training, Mustelier was hurt. When he got healthy, he didn’t hit that well in Triple-A. As the Yankees tried all sorts of third-base options last season, Mustelier was never the guy at the top of the pecking order. He didn’t hit for much power this winter, wasn’t invited to big league camp this spring, and despite a .314 batting average in Triple-A — again, without much power — the Yankees decided to release him this week. They’d restocked their minor league depth this offseason, and at 29 years old, Mustelier no longer had a spot.
Window closed. Officially. Newman said there was some sense of wanting to give Mustelier a chance to find a better opportunity.
There have been similar stories with six-year minor-league free agents and other international signees in their mid-to-late 20s who couldn’t land major-league deals. They’re kind of see-what-happens projects with no clear path or obvious plan. Give them some minor league playing time, see if they perform well enough to get on the radar, and if the dominoes fall just right, they just might get a chance in the big leagues. Dominoes have already fallen perfectly for veteran pitchers Matt Daley, Bruce Billings and Chris Leroux to get a little bit of time with the Yankees this season, but last year veterans Daley, Jim Miller, Sam Demel and Yoshinori Tateyama pitched extremely well in Triple-A without any of them getting a call-up before September. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn’t.
“(Mustelier)’s hitting for a good average,” Newman said. “He’s got some offensive tools. It just came down to, we’ve got (Ramon) Flores and Zoilo Almonte there playing and playing well, and Antoan Richardson is a center fielder with a real high on-base history, and they were going to get most of the playing time.”
The Yankees also have Adonis Garcia, another right-handed Triple-A corner outfielder who’s shown some offensive ability, can vaguely play third base, and also needs at-bats (and, oddly enough, happens to be Cuban as well). Garcia is also, if need be, a more capable center field option than Mustelier.
“Probably the difference between the two is defense,” Newman said.
So now’s it’s Garcia’s turn to wait for the dominoes to fall just right, look for a window to open at just the right time, and hope that he’s in a position to take advantage of all of it if and when it happens.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just doesn’t.
Associated Press photos