The Yankees don’t really have a standout, no-downside alternative to their current rotation situation. They don’t really have an obvious, right-handed power bat that could replace struggling Alfonso Soriano. Their most realistic defensive upgrade is Brendan Ryan, who’s not likely to step in front of Derek Jeter for regular playing time at shortstop.
Of the many ways the Yankees could look to immediately change — and possibly upgrade — their roster, the area with most readily available alternatives is the infield. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s infield is so overcrowded at this point that Jose Pirela and Zelous Wheeler have basically become corner outfielders, and Corban Joseph — who was in the big leagues just last year — is having a hard time cracking the lineup. Second baseman Rob Refsnyder and first baseman Kyle Roller have hit since coming up from Double-A, and Pirela has been an unmistakeable standout.
“Those guys are swinging it in Triple-A,” vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said. “And they’ve got major-league value.” *
It’s not just Refsnyder, Roller and Pirela. Wheeler’s offense has been steady this year (and he’s played four different positions). Sizemore has been terrific against lefties (and has big league experience in a platoon role). Dean Anna just came off the disabled list (and impressed the Yankees enough to win a spot on the Opening Day roster).
Question is whether the Yankees would see any of them as a potential upgrade over Kelly Johnson (who’s hit but hasn’t done much in the field), Yangervis Solarte (who’s hit .193/.270/.281 since May 15), or Brian Roberts (who’s production has come and gone throughout the season). Could they even find at-bats for a guy like Roller, who’s a left-handed power hitter limited to first base and designated hitter?
Long term, the most interesting of the Triple-A infielders seems to be Refsnyder, an outfielder-turned-second-baseman who’s moved quickly through the system and has hit .292/.404/.458 through his first 14 Triple-A games. The Yankees sound encouraged by his improvement in the field.
“Big time improvement. Huge,” Newman said. “Just keep playing and recognizing game situations, that’s what he needs to do. He’s making routine plays, he’s making good plays, he’s making double plays.”
Short term — assuming the Yankees want Refsnyder to get more than a couple weeks of Triple-A experience — the most interesting of the Triple-A infielders just might be Pirela, a former shortstop whose prospect status faded about three years ago only to have him pop back on the radar with a couple of strong years in Trenton. Now he’s having a standout season with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, hitting .320/.361/.466 and leading the team in both batting average and total bases. Pirela also has been a strong hitter in winter ball, truly thriving back home in Venezuela. Sometimes development takes a while, and Pirela is still just 24 years old.
“He can hit,” Newman said.
Although the Yankees moved Pirela away from shortstop in 2012, Newman said the organization still considers him a viable defender at second base. His most recent playing time in left field and at first base is primarily about adding some flexibility and making sure he gets regular at-bats while Refsnyder — clearly a priority at the position — gets the regular reps at second. Pirela, Newman said, should be considered a viable option at second base despite having not played the position since June 4.
“He can play the outfield,” Newman said. “(And) he can play second base.”
* Leading into that quote about guys who are “swinging it in Triple-A,” the “those guys” Newman specifically mentioned were Refsnyder, Roller and Pirela (which is why I specifically mentioned them leading into the quote), but Newman also mentioned outfielder Zoilo Almonte, who’s hit with good power from the left side of the plate. The Yankees would seem to have use for that sort of power in the big leagues, but with lefties Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ichiro Suzuki each playing well — granted, with very little power — the Yankees seem content to leave Almonte in Triple-A. He hasn’t hit enough from the right side to be much of a Soriano alternative, Carlos Beltran is taking the DH at-bats, and the outfield is already full of lefties.
Associated Press photo