Yankees organizational depth: Shortstop • 01.12.11
In certain corners of the Yankees fan base, Derek Jeter is perhaps the least beloved icon in baseball. A vocal minority — at least I think it’s a minority — is ready to give up on him after the first rather pedestrian season of his career. The Yankees aren’t so pessimistic, having just locked Jeter into a three-year deal with a fourth-year option, but they are preparing for life without their captain. The Yankees top two picks in last year’s draft were shortstops.
In the big leagues
Hard to believe Jeter is only one year removed from being a legitimate MVP candidate. Concerns about production are inevitable when a player reaches his late 30s, but Jeter seemed to be charging into his twilight years before a sudden step back last season. Defensively, he’s fundamental rather than dynamic, and the Yankees seem willing to accept those limitations. Offensively, it’s hard to say what Jeter is at this point. If he falls somewhere between his ’09 and ’10 levels of production, he’ll remain one of the better offensive shortstops in the game. He showed signs of bouncing back in September, but another step in the wrong direction could be a real problem and would almost certainly force Joe Girardi to drop his captain to the bottom of the lineup.
On the verge
The Yankees know what they have in Ramiro Pena. He’s a terrific defensive player with a little bit of speed, but his bat is limited to say the least. The shortstop who seems to have their attention is Eduardo Nunez, who last year hit .289/.340/.381 with 23 stolen bases in Triple-A, then held his own after a late-season major league call-up. He seems to have made defensive progress last season as well. Beyond Nunez, there’s a large gap before the next wave of significant shortstop potential reaches the upper levels. Jose Pirela, who should open in Double-A, isn’t a no-name, but his ceiling seems closer to a utility infielder than a starting shortstop.
Deep in the organization
It was considered something of a surprise when the Yankees took a shot on Cito Culver as their first-round draft pick last summer. They backed that pick by selecting another teenage shortstop, Angelo Gumbs, in the second round. Three years earlier, the Yankees took a 10th-round shot on a high school shortstop named Carmen Angelini — they knew he was raw, but thought he might improve too much in college for them to ever have a shot at him when he was older — only to see that pick fizzle through bad numbers and a hip injury. Instead, the long-term, in-house future of the shortstop position might rest on the two kids who turned pro just a few months ago.
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: Derek Jeter
Scranton/WB: Ramiro Pena/Eduardo Nunez
Trenton: Jose Pirela
Tampa: Kelvin Castro
Charleston: Carmen Angelini
The big league depth chart at shortstop doesn’t extend much beyond Nunez and Pena. Kevin Russo and Reegie Corona have experience at the position, but both are better suited elsewhere. If Jeter gets hurt, Nunez seems to be the best long-term solution. If Pena wins the utility job, he’ll be the guy to get occasional starts here and there.
In the lower levels, the shortstop situation could change significantly by mid-season. Culver will probably open in extended spring training with a eye toward making his Charleston debut in early June. Until then, an organizational shortstop — Jose Mojica, Emerson Landoni, Angelini — could get the Low-A job. Up in High-A, Castro is the natural fit for the job despite hitting just .224 in Charleston last year. If not him, perhaps Walter Ibarra or Addison Maruszak could return to Tampa, but as an everyday player this time. There is also the chance that Angelini could impress in spring training and get the Tampa job out of camp. Basically, the shortstop position in the lower levels is remarkably flexible heading into spring training. The upper levels will have Luis Nunez, Doug Bernier and Justin Snyder to fill some shortstop time off the bench.
Associated Press photo of Jeter, headshots of Jeter, Nunez and Angelini (milb.com doesn’t have a Culver headshot yet and I don’t want to steal one from another site)
Rule 5 decisions looming for Yankees • 11.02.10
Last winter, the Yankees added seven minor leaguers to the 40-man roster. If I had to guess, I’d say it will be closer to four or five this winter.
Of the players eligible for the Rule 5 draft, only Dellin Betances and Brandon Laird jump out as guys who absolutely need to be protected. Beyond that, each addition is likely to depend on how many roster spots come open and how highly the Yankees think of some of their lower-level players.
This post is not an attempt to list every Yankees minor leaguer who’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft. These are simply some of the names who jumped out to me as leading candidates at various positions. My friend Donnie Collins has a more comprehensive list.
Pitchers: Wilkins Arias, Dellin Betances, Jairo Heredia, Craig Heyer, Alan Horne, George Kontos, Adam Olbrychowski, Jonathan Ortiz, Lance Pendleton, Ryan Pope, Pat Venditte, Kevin Whelan, Eric Wordekemper
Betances (right) is the no-brainer of the group. He’s a huge talent who seems to be finally healthy, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could pitch his way to New York as early as next season.
Heredia is also a pretty big talent, but injuries have held him to only 39 innings above Low-A. The Yankees took a chance on getting the young and raw Ivan Nova through the Rule 5 in 2008, and that worked out. They took no such chances with Hector Noesi last year. The Yankees have to make a similar decision on Heredia this year.
Beyond Betances, the names that standout most are Arias, Pendleton and Pope. Arias is the only lefty on the list, Pendleton is coming off a nice year in Double-A (he finished in Triple-A) and Pope was invited to big league camp this spring then got an Arizona Fall League assignment this offseason. Heyer is also in the Fall League. Those Fall League assignments suggest the Yankees like the potential of Heyer and Pope, but one year ago Zach Kroenke, Grant Duff and Colin Curtis were all sent to the Fall League, but each was still left exposed to the Rule 5.
Horne and Kontos would be much more prominent in this discussion if not for injuries. Kontos is pitching again, but after a solid regular season, he’s struggling in Arizona.
Infielders: Brandon Laird, Jose Pirela, Brad Suttle
Laird (right) was terrific this season. He can already play the infield corners, now he’s in the Fall League learning to handle the outfield. He seems like a lock.
Pirela is the biggest name of a few small-name middle infielders who are eligible. He’s never played above Class A, and the Yankees already have quite a few middle infielders on the roster. Suttle is an interesting case: A fourth-round pick who showed an impressive bat in college but missed all of 2009 with a shoulder injury. He started to hit in the second-half of this season, but I’m not sure he could actually stick on a Major League roster at this point.
Outfielders: Abraham Almonte, Zoilo Almonte, Austin Krum, Melky Mesa, Damon Sublett
The top candidate here is Mesa (right). He can hit for power, he can run and he can throw. He also struck out 129 times in 121 games this season. And that was an improvement on last year’s 168 strikeouts. Strikeouts aside, Mesa can play center field and he brings a ton of tools. Beyond Laird, I’d say Mesa is the top position player worth a spot.
Of the other outfielders: Neither of the Almonte’s has played above Class-A, while Krum and Sublett hit below .230 in Double-A this season. Sublett and Abraham Almonte are converted infielders.
Catchers: Jose Gil
No big names are eligible at catcher. Right or wrong, Gil (right) has been treated more like an organizational catcher than as a prospect. P.J. Pilittere will become a free agent this winter, but he’s not someone the Yankees are likely to consider adding to the roster, and he’s much better off finding a new organization.
Jesus Montero and Austin Romine are a year away from Rule 5 eligibility.
State of the Yankees: Shortstop • 02.12.10
As you’re well aware, Derek Jeter is in the final year of his contract. He’s 35 years old, he’ll be 36 by the end of the season, and the Yankees have a long-standing policy of not negotiating extensions until the winter.* And so, the face of the Yankees will go through the season as a lame-duck shortstop, but there’s no reason to believe he won’t be back for 2011 and beyond. It’s just a matter of how much money and how many years. The Yankees have a handful of promising young shortstops knocking on the door to the big leagues, but I wouldn’t count on any of them taking the Captain’s place.
Starter: Derek Jeter
Backup: Ramiro Pena
Veteran insurance: none
Almost ready: Eduardo Nunez
Low rising: Jose Pirela
True, Jeter is well into his mid-30s, but he’s also coming off a season in which he won both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, made his 10th all-star team and finished third in MVP voting. He’s been the American League’s Silver Slugger at shortstop each of the past four years. What can I say? The guy’s good. Behind him, the Yankees have a defensive shortstop in Pena and an offensive shortstop in Nunez, plus utility man Reegie Corona has considerable experience at the position. For now, Pena is probably the better option should something happen to Jeter, but Nunez could easily pass him if he can improve his defense (33 errors last season) and his plate discipline (only 22 walks). Pirela is probably the top shortstop in the lower levels, partially because Carmen Angelini’s development has been a struggle.
Worst-case scenario: It makes sense to worry about injuries and a lack of production from most 35-year-old shortstops, but Jeter has shown no signs of such problems. That said, if he does stumble this season, it could make for a messy contract negotiation in the offseason. Replacing Jeter from within — even slightly — would be impossible if Pena’s bat can’t handle prolonged exposure to the big leagues or if Nunez can’t handle his first real taste of Triple-A.
Best-case scenario: Jeter plays like the guy everyone is used to seeing. He puts himself in the discussion for another Gold Glove, he runs away with another Silver Slugger and he leads this team to another World Championship. When it’s over, the Yankees settle on a contract that comes together easily, with very little back and forth. All the while, Nunez continues to rebuild his prospect status, and Angelini finally starts to hit and finally gets his career moving.
The future: Pena’s glove is exciting, Nunez’s bat has come to life and Pirela hit .295 as a 19-year-old, but Jeter remains the past, present and future of the Yankees organization. The lineup might revolve around Mark Teixeira and the pitching staff falls in line behind CC Sabathia, but this is still Jeter’s team. I don’t know how much it will take, and I’m not sure it matters. One way or another, Jeter will be back in 2011, you can bet on it. Shortstop will be his as long as he can be productive at the position. The Yankees aren’t waiting for someone to take the torch, they’re waiting for Jeter to hand it off.
An attempt at the complete depth chart
An educated guess, but just a guess
Scranton: Eduardo Nunez
Trenton: Walter Ibbara (maybe Justin Snyder or Luis Nunez gets regular at-bats?)
Tampa: Jose Pirela (with Addison Maruszak in a versatile infield)
Charleston: Carmen Angelini
Extended: Jose Mojica (unless he swaps places with Angelini)
* In my opinion, the negotiation policy makes sense. The only way it hurts anyone’s feelings is if an exception is made for one player and not another. That’s why the Yankees can’t negotiate with Jeter just because he’s Jeter. It would make everyone else feel second-class, and the policy lets Jeter know that there’s nothing to read into the decision to wait until the offseason.