On the 40-man: Tyler Austin • 01.21.15
We started this day with a post about Yankees icons, and in our ongoing look at the players on the Yankees 40-man roster, we next focus on a player who the Yankees would certainly like to see develop into an icon. During his best stretches, his bat seems to have that kind of potential. During his worst stretches, it’s been hard to know whether he’ll even advance to the big leagues.
Age on Opening Day: 23
Acquired: 13th-round pick in the 2010 draft
Added to the 40-man: Protected from the Rule 5 this offseason
In the past: After an impressive but brief 2011, Austin burst onto the scene with a dominant 2012 during which he hit .322/.400/.559 spread across four levels. Sent to Double-A the next season, Austin’s numbers declined while he dealt with a wrist injury that lingered, keeping him out of one Arizona Fall League assignment and keeping him limited early last spring. Last year’s second half, though, was a return to form.
Role in 2015: Everyday right fielder for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre seems to be the most logical and obvious fit. Hitting .336/.397/.557 in last year’s second half seemed to be a good sign that Austin had finally recovered from the wrist issue, and he followed that strong finish with a .304/.392/.449 slash line in the Arizona Fall League before a relatively minor knee injury. Austin seems clearly ready to make this Triple-A debut with an eye toward being a big league call-up if his numbers are good.
Best case scenario: Ideally, Austin creates some difficult decisions down the road. While Aaron Judge is clearly the more touted right-field prospect and seems to have more potential, Austin’s best stints have been impressive enough to wonder if he just might have a future as a regular corner outfielder in the big leagues. If he beats Judge to New York and solidifies himself in the lineup, then the Yankees will have to decide who moves to a different spot. Austin could slot in as a left fielder, right fielder or first baseman (and maybe a third baseman under the right circumstances) and that flexibility could be helpful. With Austin, though, it’s all about the bat. His absolute best-case offensive scenario is pretty impressive.
Worst case scenario: The history of baseball is littered with players who put up huge numbers in A ball but never thrived — or even arrived — in the big leagues. Austin did not rank among the Yankees Top 10 prospects according to Baseball America this winter, and that seems to be a common assessment. Despite his bursts of brilliance, there’s still some doubt about whether his bat will play in the majors. The worst case scenario is that either health or production keeps Austin from even reaching New York, much less thriving there.
What the future holds: After seeing some of the wild fluctuation that’s already happened in his career, the Yankees likely won’t lose all faith in Austin because of a bad Triple-A debut, but they also might not declare him their right fielder of the future if he thrives. Austin is kind of an undefined prospect at this point, capable of great highs and lows. The wrist could be the greatest cause of those low points, and if that’s that case, a healthy year could solidify him as the right-handed outfielder the Yankees want and need. His long-term future could also be ultimate overshadowed by Judge’s tremendous power and potential.
Associated Press photo
With Slade Heathcott re-signed to a minor league deal, the Yankees now have a ton of outfield depth, but still not the kind of depth that necessitates a trade or a particularly difficult decision. It’s not like the Francisco Cervelli situation in which the Yankees have a player with a defined value, along with the need to move someone in order to open up the proper at-bats for everyone else. Here’s a rough look at the Yankees top upper-level outfielders. Each comes with some good, some bad, and some reason — either because of the team’s needs or because of his own value — that limits his trade possibilities.
The good: Already a borderline Hall of Famer expected to be healthy again after last year’s elbow injury.
The bad: About to turn 38 years old — are we sure last year’s .703 OPS was strictly the product of injury?
Trade him? Not a lot of trade value in an aging player, coming of a bad year, with $30 million left on his deal.
The good: Signed a hefty deal last winter and more or less delivered an as-expected season in his Yankees debut.
The bad: Even coming off a solid season, seven years and $153 million is a massive contract.
Trade him? Might be the best position player on the roster right now.
The good: Power numbers spiked, and for a while he looked like a better player than Ellsbury last year.
The bad: Still a rather streaky player with limited power for a corner outfielder.
Trade him? Might be the most valuable trade chip on the big league roster, but also signed to a reasonable extension.
The good: History of left-handed power with an ability to backup first base, right field and designated hitter.
The bad: Turns 34 in June and his power numbers have been down the past two seasons.
Trade him? Would be more of a salary dump than an actual effort to get anything valuable in return (also provides first base insurance).
The good: Returns to bring right-handed balance after reestablishing himself with a terrific September.
The bad: Other than one good month, last season was bad enough to get him released … by the Mets.
Trade him? Plays a role the Yankees need as a veteran right-handed bat with power and speed off the bench.
The good: Last year’s terrific second half brought back memories of how good a hitter he was earlier in his career.
The bad: A wrist injury contributed to much less exciting numbers before that second-half resurgence.
Trade him? Of all the outfielders ticketed for Triple-A, Austin probably has the most offensive impact potential.
The good: Left-handed hitters with speed and some defensive flexibility; looks like a nice fourth outfielder down the road.
The bad: Coming off an ankle injury and isn’t a great fit while Gardner and Ellsbury are on the roster.
Trade him? Low power potential probably limits his value to more of a second or third piece in a significant trade.
The good: Right-handed hitter who’s shown some speed, defense and on-base ability in the minor leagues.
The bad: Plucked off waivers, suggesting he was not exactly a high commodity (also put up bad winter ball numbers this year).
Trade him? Value is pretty low just a few months after being placed on the waiver wire; DFA might be more likely than a trade.
The good: Offensive utility man put himself back on the prospect map — and in the big league picture — with a terrific Triple-A season.
The bad: Can’t really play shortstop and hasn’t really established whether he hits enough to keep a job in the big leagues.
Trade him? First and foremost, he seems to have a legitimate shot at the big league second base job heading into spring training.
The good: Speed and defense were deemed major-league ready, enough to protect him from the Rule 5 draft this winter.
The bad: Hasn’t hit the past two years, doing a number on his once elite prospect status.
Trade him? Would be selling awfully low — Williams no longer has the value to remotely headline a significant deal.
The good: Might have surpassed Williams and Heathcott as the system’s top center field prospect.
The bad: Doesn’t have overwhelming speed or power, and doesn’t have more than 42 games above A ball.
Trade him? Could be a nice complementary trade piece; could also be the most viable center fielder in the minor league system.
The good: The guys gets on base way too much to ignore; played his way out of the shadows and up to Triple-A last year.
The bad: Never a standout prospect, doesn’t run much, very little power, has spent more time in left field than center.
Trade him? Has never moved the needle among prospect watchers, suggesting his stock is too low to be considered a real chip.
The good: Has been a solid hitter throughout the minor leagues, even when easily overshadowed by other prospects.
The bad: Always kind of a sleeper prospect, but not one who’s forced people to really wake up and take notice.
Trade him? Hasn’t done nearly enough; could more easily simply become a Double-A bench player behind all of this depth.
The good: Has been a pretty nice hitter both in Triple-A and in winter ball (able to play center field and third base in a pinch).
The bad: Turns 30 years old in April so the upside is probably limited.
Trade him? Sure, if some team values a 30-year-old with no major league experience; could be another Ronnier Mustelier.
The good: No one seems to question the former first-round pick’s raw talent and ultimate potential.
The bad: Just can’t stay healthy, which has cost valuable development time; hard to gauge his ceiling at this point.
Trade him? Was a free agent until yesterday; if another team valued him highly, he probably wouldn’t have come back.
The good: After a standout first full season, he emerged as the top offensive prospect in the entire minor league system.
The bad: Ultimately we’re talking about fewer than 500 minor league at-bats; he’s promising but unproven.
Trade him? Plenty of value here, but Judge could be the best middle-of-the-order bat the Yankees have developed since Robinson Cano.
Associated Press photos
The Yankees first significant signing came this weekend when they agreed to a new one-year deal with Chris Young, bringing some right-handed balance to the outfield and some power/speed potential to the bench. With that signing, the Yankees seem set in the outfield with no need to add either a big league bat or additional minor league depth.
As it is, the Yankees have seven full-time outfielders on their 40-man roster — that’s to say nothing of the three 40-man infielders who have a solid amount of outfield experience — and they’re likely to add one or two more outfielders when it comes time to protect Tyler Austin and possibly Mason Williams from the Rule 5 draft.
Just taking a look at the projected big league roster, and the potential options at the highest levels of the minor league system, it seems the Yankees should have all that they need in the outfield. The depth could also leaves the Yankees with trade options should they decide to make a move.
Granted, it’s not remotely a lock that Pirela is going to make the team, and there’s a solid chance Wheeler will be designated for assignment at some point, but this is still a clear picture of three obvious starters, an experienced fourth outfielder, and at least one infielder who can play the outfield regularly if necessary. This roster also has three guys who can play center field when necessary, so the Yankees are covered as the most difficult-to-fill outfield position. Maybe another outfielder comes to camp on a non-roster invitation just in case — stranger things have happened — but there’s no overwhelming need here. Especially if the Yankees carrying a versatile utility guy like Pirela, they have plenty of big league outfield options as it is.
Picking the three “starting” outfielders for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre next season isn’t an easy task. I assume Austin will move up after his finishing strong in Double-A, and the bulk of his playing time will surely come in the outfield corners (perhaps with a little bit of corner infield now and then). Flores and Perez clearly need regular at-bats as well — they could be first in line for an outfield call-up — and both Dugas and Garcia have played well enough to also deserve playing time. Chances are Refsnyder will be strictly a second baseman, but he’s listed here just to show the Yankees have yet another guy who could play some Triple-A outfield if necessary. There’s also the chance that Pirela and/or Wheeler could end up back in Triple-A providing even more depth. There’s not much big league experience here, but there are only so many Triple-A at-bats to go around, and the Yankees surely want to prioritize legitimate prospects ahead of minor league veterans. Bringing back a guy like Antoan Richardson or signing someone similar would only take away at-bats from young guys who need the playing time.
Kind of like the Triple-A outfield, the Double-A outfield has more than three guys who seem worth of everyday at-bats. The tough part here is predicting what the Yankees are going to do with Heathcott and Williams. Is Heathcott going to be healthy enough to stay on the field (and if so, is he going back to Double-A or finally jumping to Triple-A)? Is Williams going to be lost in the Rule 5 draft (and if not, would he get priority playing time ahead of the other guys listed here)? Like with Austin, I’m assuming Judge will be challenged with a jump up a level, which means right field is taken, and Cave has played too well to be anything less than an everyday outfielder next season. In terms of immediate outfield depth, the important thing to notice here is that Heathcott and Williams are still looming as upper-level outfielders who could be on the 40-man roster and still warrant playing time as well. That leaves the Yankees with a lot of outfielders who need at-bats.
Associated Press photo
Ramon Flores continues to get more winter ball at-bats than ever before, and he’s making the most of them.
Moved regularly into the No. 2 spot in the order, Flores has 13 hits in his past five games for the Tigres de Aragua in Venezuela. He had three straight two-hit games, then he went 6-for-6 with a double on Wednesday. He has yet to steal a base, he hasn’t hit for a ton of power, but Flores has taken some walks and he’s struck out just nine times in 17 games. He’s hitting .411/.468/.518 through 56 at-bats.
Still just 22 years old, Flores has a spot on the Yankees 40-man roster, and he was hitting pretty well in Triple-A before a June 1 ankle injury cost him most of the second half. He’s mostly a left fielder — that’s where he’s playing regularly this winter — but he can play center, and he has some experience in right field and at first base.
Could be a legitimate bench option coming out of spring training. It’s worth noting, though, that Flores is left-handed and the right-handed fourth outfielder might be a better fit.
A few other notes from winter ball:
• Well, it seems Jose Pirela isn’t going to hit three home runs every week this winter (he did that in his first week in Venezuela). On Sunday, though, he did go 3-for-4 with a triple. Pirela already has three triples and three homers through his first 10 games this winter. He took an 0-for-6 on Thursday, but he’s still hitting .317/.364/.707 through 41 at-bats. He’s played mostly left field with starts at second base, third base and right field.
• One of Pirela’s winter teammates is utility man Ali Castillo, who’s having a terrific winter as the Aguilas leadoff hitter. Castillo is hitting .348/.378/.478 with nine stolen bases. He was playing shortstop until Freddy Galvis arrived, and now he’s basically playing left field or second base (whichever Pirela isn’t playing on a given day). Not really considered much of a prospect, but the Yankees don’t exactly have a ton of guys who can play shortstop in the upper levels.
• Not everyone is raking in Venezuela. On Thursday Adonis Garcia was dropped to sixth in the order for Navegantes del Magallanes. He put up impressive winter league numbers last year, but this year his power has been nowhere to be found. He’s hitting .272/.314/.296, with his only extra-base hits being a couple of doubles. I’d still say he has a chance to make an impression in spring training, just hasn’t done much this winter.
• Eury Perez, the guy acquired at the very end of the year, is still playing a lot of left field and batting leadoff in the Dominican Republic. He has just seven games 31 at-bats so far. He has yet to take a walk and he’s 0-for-2 in stolen base attempts — speed is a pretty big part of his game — but he’s also played in just seven games and has just 31 at-bats. The Dominican Winter League started a little later than the Venezuelan Winter League.
• Down in the Arizona Fall League, Dante Bichette Jr. has gotten his bat going a little bit. He has four hits and five RBI in his past three games, and one Wednesday he got his first Fall League extra-base hit (a double). He’s hitting .256/.328/.276, which pales in comparison to the other Yankees position players sent to Arizona this year.
• Speaking of those other Yankees hitters in Arizona, after winning Fall Stars Game MVP over the weekend, Greg Bird promptly had another 2-for-4 game on Monday, then he took two walks on Wednesday. He’s hitting .341/.404/.610 through 67 at-bats. … Aaron Judge hasn’t had an extra-base hit since his two-homer game last Thursday — he’s only had 15 at-bats since then — but his Arizona slash line is still an impressive .284/.395/.507 with nearly as many walks (12) as strikeouts (14). … Riding a mild four-game hitting streak, Tyler Austin is hitting .318/.392/.470 in the Fall League. He’s still seeing time in both outfield corners. Has yet to play either first base or third base.
• I’ve said this before, but it remains true: It seems that every year the Yankees have one pitcher who gets absolutely rocked in the Arizona Fall League. This year, it’s Alex Smith. In an offense-heavy league, Smith was roughed up for two more runs on Wednesday and his ERA is up to 9.72 with a 3.12 WHIP through eight appearances. … The other two Yankees pitchers in Arizona, Kyle Haynes and Caleb Cotham, each pitched one hitless inning this week. Cotham has 12 strikeouts and only two walks this Fall, but he also has a 5.56 ERA. Haynes has a 1.86 ERA, but he also has seven walks and four unearned runs in 9.2 innings.
• Recently re-signed minor league reliever Diego Moreno had four saves in his first five appearances this winter, but he’s now allowed eight hits and four earned runs in his past 2.2 innings spread across his past three outings. Really aren’t many Yankees pitchers getting many innings so far this winter.
Associated Press photo of Flores; headshots of Pirela, Perez and Smith
Before the end of the regular season, Jose Pirela put up impressive numbers in Triple-A, landed a spot on the 40-man roster, and got his first big league call-up. He undoubtedly emerged as a serious candidate for some sort of big league role next season, and he’s spent the past week further making his case with a terrific first few games of winter ball.
Pirela stepped into the heart of the Aguilas del Zulia lineup last Friday, and in six games he’s hit .391/.440/1.000 with three home runs, two triples, and seven RBI. Oh, and he’s already started at four different positions: second base, third base, left field and right field.
Good winter numbers are nothing new for Pirela. Just last year he hit .332/.415/.514 while playing second base and left field in Venezuela.
If the Yankees don’t add an impact infielder this offseason, Pirela could come to spring training with a chance to win the second base job next season. If nothing else, though, his bat and versatility could make him a prime candidate for a bench job.
A few other notes from the offseason leagues.
• Two weeks ago, Tyler Austin was hitting .259/.355/.333 and still waiting for his first Arizona Fall League home run. Not a ton of at-bats, but also not an overwhelming start in an offense-heavy league. Since then, Austin’s gotten on a roll. In a span of eight games, Austin has raised his Arizona slash line to .322/.394/.492. He has two homers, two doubles and eight RBI during this latest hot streak. He’s had three hits in each of his past two games. Austin also continues to get time in both right field and left field — still no time at first base or third base — which seems at least mildly significant. He hadn’t played left field in the minors, so it’s helpful to get at least some familiarity on that side.
• The hitting streak is over. Greg Bird finally took an 0-for-3 on Wednesday — he did take a walk, so he was at least on base — marking the first time he failed to get a hit in the Fall League. How did he respond? By going 2-for-2 with a pair of walks the very next day. Making a bid for the league’s MVP award, Bird is hitting .347/.400/.653 with six homers through 72 at-bats. He had a 16-game hitting streak before Wednesday’s 0-for.
• Not to be outdone, the Yankees biggest name assigned to the Fall League is also on a roll. Aaron Judge hit two home runs yesterday, he also homered on Saturday, and his Arizona slash line is up to .288/.387/.577 with nearly as many walks (9) as strikeouts (10). He continues to get all of his time in right field. Safe to say this guy is not being groomed for a potential bench role.
• One other guy who could be a bench candidate, though, is left-handed outfielder Ramon Flores, who continues to get the most playing time he’s ever seen in winter ball. Playing down in Venezuela, Flores isn’t necessarily playing every day, but he’s playing pretty regularly, and he’s hitting .303/.395/.394 through 33 at-bats while getting most of his time in left field. Flores got just six winter at-bats last year, only 13 the year before, and none before that. Now that he’s older and more advanced, he’s getting to play.
• Late-season addition Eury Perez just got started down in the Dominican Winter League on Tuesday. He’s played in just two games, but he hit leadoff and started in left field for each of them. He’s gotten fairly regular playing time for that team in the past (one of his winter teammates is former Yankees prospect Melky Mesa). Perez has a hit in each of his two games so far.
• Not sure this makes him a legitimate big league roster candidate going forward, but shortstop Ali Castillo is putting up huge numbers so far this winter. Castillo’s been hitting leadoff for Pirela’s team, and he’s hitting .391/.411/.536 through 69 at-bats. He was playing shortstop every day, but he’s moved around to second base and left field ever since Freddy Galvis joined the team a little more than a week ago. Castillo was the regular shortstop in Trenton this year and hit .254/.318/.327. Another smaller name putting up big numbers in Venezuela: catcher Jose Gil is hitting .345/.387/.586 while getting pretty regular playing time.
• A few offensive quick hits: Dante Bichette Jr. is still looking for his first extra-base hit in Arizona. He’s hitting .239/.321/.239 with 12 strikeouts and six walks. … Kyle Higashioka is still getting very little playing time in the Fall League, but he’s had a hit in all four of his appearances. On Wednesday, Scottsdale had Judge, Bird, Higashioka, Austin and Bichette all hitting together in order 3 through 7. Kinda cool. … Still playing left field and batting in the heart of the order every day in Venezuela, Adonis Garcia is hitting .300/.338/.329 while waiting for his power to show up.
• Not a ton of Yankees pitching that catches the eye this winter. Down the Fall League, Caleb Cotham hasn’t walked a batter in his past 7.1 innings, but opponents are still hitting .318 against him. … Also in Arizona, Kyle Haynes has more than four ground ball outs for every one out in the air. Quite a few walks, though. … The third Yankees pitcher assigned to the Fall League, Alex Smith, finally had a scoreless outing on Monday. He’s allowed at least one run in each of his other five appearances.
• Recently re-signed reliever Diego Moreno gave up a two-run home run in the ninth inning in Venezuela on Monday. He’d allowed a run in only one of his first seven outings before that. Also recently re-signed, Joel De La Cruz has allowed two unearned runs in his two appearances in the Dominican Republic. He’s struck out six and allowed four hits in 4.2 innings.
Associated Press photo
Earlier this week, Jim Callis wrote quite a bit about the Yankees currently playing in the Arizona Fall League. He understandably focused on breakout right field prospect Aaron Judge, noting that Judge is wrapping up the longest stretch of baseball he’s ever experienced.
Pro ball often forces a young player into a longer and more rigorous schedule than he’s used to, but Judge’s adjustment was delayed because of last year’s quadriceps injury.
“After you get drafted, you just want to show people who you are,” Judge told Callis. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise, though. I met a lot of great big leaguers while I was down in Tampa rehabbing. It kind of helped me with the mental side of baseball. Everyone’s going to have ups and downs, and just trying to stay even keel through that whole process is a huge part of it.”
Check out the Callis story. It has some basic scouting details on all of the Yankees players down in the Fall League.
A few other notes from winter leagues:
• The Yankees top first base prospect, Greg Bird, has played in 12 games in the Fall League, and he has a hit in every one of them. Four of those hits have been home runs. It’s an offense-heavy league, but a .333/.382/.627 is awfully good. The guy can hit. It’s not reflected in the numbers here, but Bird doubled in his first at-bat today, so make that a 13-game hitting streak.
• After getting time at right field, first base and third base in the minor leagues, Tyler Austin is getting some time in left field while on assignment in the Arizona Fall League. In fact, he’s playing left field again tonight (while Judge plays right). It will be his fourth turn in left field, which can’t be a bad thing for a guy who could earn some sort of big league role next season, possibly as a corner bench player. Austin’s had two hits and and two RBI in two of his past four games. Hasn’t shown much power so far, but after 36 at-bats his slash line is a not-bad .278/.366/.361.
• Interesting for Yankees fans that the Scottsdale team has often gone with Yankees prospects in the 2, 3 and 4 spots in the lineup — Austin, Judge, then Bird as the cleanup hitter. Judge has been in the No. 3 spot for each of his starts down in Arizona. He’s hitting .276/.313/.448 with eight RBI in seven games.
• Off to a slow start in Arizona, Dante Bichette Jr. has now reached base seven times in his past four games, which has helped his slash line. He’s still hitting just .226/.306/.226. Only 31 at-bats, though. In his MLB.com piece, Callis notes that Bichette might eventually end up as a DH. The bat is his ticket to the big leagues. Needs the power that he showed his first season of pro ball.
• As expected, catcher Kyle Higashioka is only getting occasional playing time down in Arizona (he’s part of the roster that’s only occasionally active) but he’s making the most of it so far. Through two games, Higashioka has five hits, a home run and a stolen base. The Yankees have long liked his defensive ability, but he’s never shown much offense at all in the lower minors.
• The group picked by the Yankees for the Fall League is heavy on position players, and the pitchers sent to Arizona remain somewhat underwhelming statistically. Alex Smith has allowed at least one earned run in each of his five outings and currently has an 11.81 ERA with more walks (6) than strikeouts (4). … Caleb Cotham has 10 strikeouts and just two walks through seven innings. He also has a 7.71 ERA. Last time he pitched was Monday when Cotham allowed six hits and three earned runs through two innings. … Kyle Haynes hasn’t pitched since Saturday. Through 5.2 innings, he has yet to be charged with an earned run, but he’s allowed three unearned. Has a solid 1.24 WHIP. Tiny sample size, of course.
• Looking for more encouraging pitching numbers? Reliever Diego Moreno, who had some solid moments with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, has pitched well as a closer in the Venezuelan Winter League. He’s 4-for-4 in save opportunities, and he’s allowed just two hits through 5.1 innings. He recently re-signed a minor league deal to return to the Yankees system.
• Also down in Venezuela, Cuban outfielder Adonis Garcia continues to be the regular left fielder and usual No. 3 or 4 hitter for Navegantes del Magallanes. He’s hit for a strong average and stolen a couple of bases, but Garcia’s still waiting for the winter power to show up. He’s hitting .283/.313/.304. Last winter he hit .325/.347/.502 in Venezuela.
• After getting just six winter at-bats last year, and 13 at-bats the year before, young outfielder Ramon Flores continues to get fairly regular playing time this winter. Two weeks into the Venezuelan season, Flores has played in seven games and hit .333/.429/.500 through 18 at-bats. If he weren’t left-handed, Flores might be an even stronger candidate for the Yankees bench next season. As it is, some winter playing time couldn’t hurt after missing so much time this season with an ankle injury.
• Notable at least partially because of the Yankees total lack of standout shortstop prospects in the upper levels, utility type Ali Castillo continues to hit in Venezuela. He’s playing shortstop everyday — he was the regular shortstop for Trenton this year — and he’s hitting .395/.429/.447 through 38 at-bats in 10 games. He’s also stolen five bases in seven attempts. He’s been hitting leadoff. The same winter ball team used Castillo all over the infield and hit him ninth last year.
Some winter leagues have not even started yet, and the ones that have started are only a week or so into their schedules, so these updates come with really small sample sizes. But almost three weeks into the season, perhaps it’s nice to see some actual stats from young Yankees who are still playing actual baseball games. Here are a few winter and fall league updates.
• Getting regular turns as his team’s cleanup hitter, Greg Bird is off to a strong start down in the Arizona Fall League. The Yankees top first base prospect has a hit in each of his first seven games, he started with a four-RBI performance in the Fall opener, he had two hits and a walk last night, and he’s so far hitting .379/.438/.586 in an admittedly tiny sample size. It’s always dangerous to make too much of Arizona Fall League results — and that’s especially true after 29 at-bats — but Bird’s been good so far. Better than the alternative, I suppose.
• Interesting Scottsdale Scorpions lineup last night if only because it had Tyler Austin in left field. That’s relevant because Austin has actually never played left field in the minor leagues. He’s played the other corners — first base, third base, right field — but he’d never seen time in left until this Fall. He played left field on Monday and again on Wednesday. Probably not a huge leap for Austin to move to the other outfield corner, but for a player who could hit his way into a big league role at some point next year, being able to play left field and bring some right-handed balance to the outfield would be a plus.
• Each time that Austin has played left field, it’s opened right field for another Yankees prospect, Aaron Judge. Last night, Judge homered and drove in two runs. So far, Austin has gotten more Fall League at-bats. Might stay that way considering Judge had more regular season at-bats and, in theory, has less need to play regularly this Fall.
• Catcher Kyle Higashioka is only a part-time player in Arizona — rosters down there have guys who aren’t active for every game — but he made the most of his first bit of playing time. He started a game last weekend and went 3-for-5 with a home run. Needs playing time and plenty of production to get back on the fringes of the prospect radar after injuries and unimpressive seasons. The Yankees other Fall League position player, Dante Bichette Jr., is playing fairly regularly but still has fewer than 20 at-bats and just three hits. Doesn’t mean much.
• The Yankees have far more high-profile hitters than pitchers in the Fall League this year. A quick update, though, on the guys on the mound: Caleb Cotham made his third appearance last night and went two hitless innings. He allowed two homers in his first Fall outing, so this was a step in the right direction. Seems like every year a Yankees pitcher gets absolutely rocked in the Fall League, and it might be Alex Smith who has that unfortunate distinction this year. Through three outings, Smith has this line: 2 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 2 K, 22.50 ERA and a .533 opponents batting average. Much, much better numbers for late Fall League assignee Kyle Haynes. His line through three outings: 4.2 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 5 K. Covering the AFL for Baseball America, Josh Norris reported that Haynes has a 93-95 mph fastball with an mid- to upper-80s slider and changeup.
• Presumably because of his age and relative inexperience, outfield prospect Ramon Flores has rarely gotten many at-bats with his Venezuelan Winter League team. So far this winter season, though, Flores is playing pretty regularly. Might change as we get deeper into the winter season, but Flores has 15 at-bats so far, and that’s more than he had an either of the past two winters. He’s played both center field and left field, and some regular winter playing time would be a good thing for a guy who missed a lot of time this season with an ankle injury. Flores has a spot on the 40-man roster and he does a lot of things well, so he really could come into spring training with a chance to push for some sort of big league role. Winter at-bats probably won’t hurt.
• Adonis Garcia is used to getting regular winter at-bats, and this year he’s been the everyday left fielder and No. 3 hitter for the Navegantes del Magallanes in Venezuela. Hasn’t hit for much power yet — just 29 at-bats into the season — but last winter he slugged .502, so there’s reason to think the power will arrive. Last winter, Garcia got a ton of time at second base and third base during winter ball. It’ll be interesting to see whether that happens again this winter. Garcia got a solid amount of third base playing time with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, so it seems the Yankees haven’t completely ruled out some sort of infield flexibility.
• Dominican Winter League gets started tonight and the Puerto Rican Winter League gets started at the very end of this month. For now, here a few other Yankees minor leaguers who are already playing in Venezuela (and all playing for the same team, no less): Trenton shortstop Ali Castillo is hitting .313 through 16 at-bats while pretty regularly playing shortstop for Zulia, recently re-signed catcher Francisco Arcia has five RBI through five games as Zulia’s regular behind the plate, and recently re-signed reliever Diego Moreno already has three saves with a 0.75 WHIP as one of Zulia’s go-to late-inning options.
Associated Press photo of Flores
Austin back on the map after wrist recovery • 10.13.14
Maybe it was wishful thing, maybe it was youthful ignorance, or maybe a 22-year-old kid had a locker really close to Derek Jeter and felt like he was supposed to say that a nagging injury was a non-issue. For whatever reason, Tyler Austin spent most of spring training saying he was optimistic and healthy; that his right wrist would be good-as-new in no time.
It was perhaps more telling that the Yankees didn’t give him a single spring at-bat, preferring to continue a rehab process that started last season.
“It’s hard to hit when your hands hurt,” outgoing vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said. “So you lose bat speed. His bat speed and his ability to impact the ball improved over the course of the year, and the second half was like what it used to be.”
Having just turned 23, Austin has put himself back in the long-term right field conversation by getting back to the kind of production that put him on the map in the first place. He hit .322/.400/.559 during a dominant 2012 season, but 2013 was a disappointment cut short by the wrist injury, and 2014 started just as slowly. Austin was invited to big league camp, but he had to sit out, then he didn’t hit his first regular-season home run until May 27. He didn’t hit his third homer until June 28.
In July, though, Austin hit .301/.342/.437. In August, he was up to .304/.368/.551. This offseason he’s playing the Arizona Fall League — had to be pulled out of it last year because of the wrist — where he has four hits and three RBI through the first four games.
A good half season and a return to Arizona don’t prove much, but they’re enough to spark fresh optimism in a young hitter who’d gone quiet for a while.
“He made a little adjustment with where he sets up with his hands,” Newman said. “That seems to help, (but) I think he’s finally mentally over this hand/wrist thing. Those are (tough). They can take a while. … That’s all part of the rehab process is getting your brain out of your hand or elbow or whatever, being able to play freely without thinking about it.”
State of the organization: First base • 10.07.14
Yesterday we looked behind the plate, today we move 90 feet up the line to first base where the Yankees are locked into a long-term contract with a former MVP candidate who’s most recently struggled to stay both healthy and productive. If there’s a bright side it’s this: The level of first base productivity in the minor leagues was actually very good this year, and there could be alternatives in place sooner rather than later.
Signed through 2016
During that offseason spending spree of 2008, the Yankees really broke the bank for Teixeira. They’d already signed CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and they’d traded for Nick Swisher, but getting Teixeira was a legitimate game-changer. He arrived in New York with a resume of durability and consistency, and he delivered that first season with near-MVP production. Gold Glove. Silver Slugger. He was exactly what the Yankees hoped he would be, and as far as long-term gambles go, Teixeira seemed relatively safe. He’d always been healthy. He’d always been productive. There was little reason to think he’d ever need to move away from his position. Six years into an eight-year contract, though, Teixeira is about as uncertain as they come. His production has dipped considerably — even his power began to lag in the second half of this year — and he’s admitted that he’s unlikely to be a 150-game player any more. Yankees have to hope that a healthy offseason restores some of his strength and durability for the final two years of his deal.
On the verge
Eighth-round picks are not insignificant, but even as the Yankees eighth-rounder in 2010, Roller has never generated much prospect attention. What he has done is hit, and hit, and hit. A left-hander with power, Roller just had the best season of his career, and he did it in the upper levels. Between Double-A and Triple-A he hit .300/.391/.550 (he destroyed the Eastern League for a month, then hit .283/.378/.497 with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre). Roller is a bad defensive player, even at first base, but he can hit. And given the offensive decline across baseball, Roller’s one standout tool is becoming harder and harder to ignore. “Understanding scarcity is important,” Mark Newman said. “That which is scarce is valuable, and you have hard time finding these dudes.” First basemen are rarely picked up in the Rule 5 draft, and the Yankees could try to pass Roller through again. Assuming they don’t lose him, Roller should return to Triple-A as the most obvious and immediate Teixeira alternative.
Although he was technically a catcher when the Yankees drafted him back in 2011, no one seemed surprised to see Bird move to first base almost immediately. He was never a sure thing to stick behind the plate, and given the Yankees catching depth, first base actually seemed to be an easier path to the big leagues. Since then, Bird has provided hope that he might have enough bat for the position. The left-handed hitter with a good and patient approach at the plate, Bird hit 20 home runs in his first full season, and he hit 14 this season while playing just 102 games because of injury. Seven of those home runs came during his 27-game promotion to Double-A Trenton, where Bird hit .253/.379/.558 in his first real test against upper-level pitching (granted, small sample size). For any player limited to first base defensively, there are huge offensive expectations. Bird’s been pretty steady so far, and he’ll spend all of next season at 22 years old with a real chance of getting to Triple-A by the end of the year. The timing could work out so that Bird is a ready replacement by the time Teixeira’s contract is coming to an end.
Deeper in the system
Just like in 2010 when they used an eight-round pick to sign first baseman Roller, the Yankees used their 2014 eighth-round selection on Spencer. The first line of Baseball America’s draft scouting report said: “Spencer is simply a hitting machine,” and he showed that in his first year of pro ball. Assigned to short-season Staten Island, Spencer hit .364/.389/.444, leading the league in batting average by a giant margin. He hit a whopping .410/.429/.520 through 100 at-bats in the month of August. One problem: While he’s hit a lot of doubles, Spencer did not hit a home run this year and hit just one homer during this three-year college career. That will almost certainly have to change if he’s going to stay at first base where true power is important. Slightly more traditional first-base production came from undrafted Mike Ford, who hit .292/.383/.458 with 13 homers between Low-A and High-A (might have hit more home runs had he not missed time with an injury). Undrafted guys don’t often generate much attention, but Ford had good numbers at Princeton and then crushed the ball in the Cape Cod League, which led the Yankees to sign him. “He was killing it in the Cape last year,” Newman said. “Last year, after 100 at-bats there, he had an OPS of 1.100 in the Cape, so we thought, why not? He can hit.”
A right-handed, versatile alternative
This is not a bad thing, but it’s worth noting that all of the minor league first basemen listed above have one thing in common: They’re all left-handed hitters. Roller, Bird, Ford and Spencer — the guys who could very well be the Opening Day first basemen for each full-season affiliate next year — are all lefties. One right-handed option to keep in mind is Tyler Austin, who’s a right fielder by trade but could certainly enter the first base discussion if he’s able to build off his strong finish to this season. More important than being right-handed, he also has some defensive flexibility. Austin’s played first base, third base and right field, and as long as Teixeira is around, the Yankees might not have room on their roster for another pure first baseman (which would rule out Roller and Bird the next two seasons). Austin, on the other hand, could emerge as a four-corners guy who could fill-in at first base whenever Teixeira needs a day off. He’s not strictly a first baseman, but Austin could be a first-base option sooner than any true first baseman in the system.
Associated Press photo
Arizona Fall League gets started today • 10.07.14
Today is Opening Day for the Arizona Fall League. While it’s always dangerous to make too much of Fall League numbers — it’s typically an offense-heavy league, and the competition is kind of unusual just because of the mix of experience and inexperience, plus some guys who might be a little drained after already playing through a full season — the Yankees are sending some of their heavy hitters into the desert, which will make those box scores a little more interesting this year.
Here are the eight Yankees assigned to the Scottsdale Scorpions:
OF/INF Tyler Austin – Listed as an outfielder on the Scottsdale roster, Austin is really more of a four-corners guy who could become a big league option at first base, third base, left field or right field (he actually hasn’t played any left field as a pro, but it seems safe to assume that wouldn’t be ruled out as a possibility). The real key for Austin is that he continues to hit. He had a terrific 2012 season which put him squarely on the prospect map, but that breakout year was followed by a disappointing 2013 year in Double-A when he was bothered by a wrist injury that lingered through much of this season. In the second half of this year, though, Austin was back to his old self hitting .336/.397/.557 in his final 122 at-bats with Double-A Trenton. He’ll almost certainly be added to the 40-man roster this winter.
3B Dante Bichette Jr. – The Yankees intended to send their top third base prospect, Eric Jagielo, but that plan was scrapped after Jagielo was hit in the face by a pitch last month in instructs. In his place, they’ll send Bichette. Jagielo was a better fit largely because he missed a decent amount of time with an injury this season, but Bichette is an interesting alternative coming off a strong bounce-back season. His first half was better than his second half, and he didn’t hit much after a late-season bump to Double-A, so a strong Fall League would be a better way to wrap up the year.
1B Greg Bird – On the disabled list through the month of April, Bird got a late start this season, which explains his inclusion on the Fall League roster. A former fifth-round pick out of a Colorado high school, Bird entered pro ball as a catcher but has emerged as the top first-base prospect in the Yankees system. He’s shown an advanced approach for a young hitter, and he hit for quite a bit of power this season. Given a late promotion to Double-A in early August, he finished the year by hitting seven home runs in just 27 games with Trenton. He’s also shown a good eye throughout his pro career. The left-handed hitter is one of several legitimate corner bats in the system, many of which are joining him in Arizona.
RHP Caleb Cotham – Of the three Yankees pitchers going to Arizona, I’d say that Cotham is the biggest name. He was a fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt back in 2009, but his career was almost immediately thrown off track by knee and shoulder injuries. He missed time again this season and pitched just 54 innings, most of them split between Double-A and Triple-A, and the results were underwhelming. He had an ERA well over 5.00 with each upper-level affiliate, and the same thing happened in Triple-A last year. Cotham turns 27 in November, and he’s clearly trying to reestablish himself after some lost years and some down seasons.
RHP Kyle Haynes – Triple-A reliever Brandon Pinder was originally assigned to the Fall League, but he’s been replaced by Haynes, who was the player to be named later in last winter’s Chris Stewart trade with the Pirates. He’s a former 20th-round draft pick, and a relatively small name among the Yankees assigned to Arizona. He’s been a reliever nearly all of his career, but he made a brief rotation cameo last season, and this year he regularly went two innings or more out of the High-A Tampa bullpen. Haynes turns 24 in February, so he’s not particularly young for his level, but he was steady throughout the year. He actually had a .250 opponents’ batting average for the month of May, then again for the month of June, and again for the month of July.
C Kyle Higashioka – Injury limited Higashioka to just 49 at-bats this season, so he’s going to Arizona to get some much-needed playing time. That said, he probably won’t play much. Each roster has a handful of guys not assigned to play regularly, and Higashioka is one of those. He’ll get in a few games a week but won’t be a regular catcher. A seventh-round pick out of high school in 2008, I believe Higashioka spent one spring as the youngest player in Yankees big league camp (that’s how I remember it, anyway). Problem is he’s never hit much and he’s had trouble staying on the field (just 68 games the past three seasons). A thoroughly forgotten name in an organization still deep at catcher, Higashioka really needs to play to get himself back on radar.
RF Aaron Judge – This is a strong group the Yankees have chosen for the Fall League, and Judge is the headliner. Listed at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, Judge looks like a strong safety and leaves little down that he can drive the ball, but he impressed this season by showing patience and an ability to hit for average. He’s arguably the top prospect in the Yankees minor league system — I would put him second behind Luis Severino, but that’s just me — and it will be hard to improve upon his .308/.419/.486 slash line for the season. Judge turns 23 in April and seems likely ticketed for Double-A Trenton next season. Question is, how quickly can he move up if he keeps hitting like he did this season?
RHP Alex Smith – The Yankees have had some success with non-drafted guys, and Smith has pitched pretty well since signing in 2012 out of the University of New Haven. Statistically he’s pretty similar to Haynes as a right-handed reliever who’s been used regularly to pitch two innings. Also like Haynes, he’s not a particularly big name in the system, and he’d be pretty easy to overlook if the Yankees hadn’t picked him for Arizona. He does have good numbers, though. Pitching all year with High-A Tampa, Smith had a 1.17 WHIP and 11 saves. He also kept the ball on the ground, with more than twice as many ground ball outs as fly ball outs.