Non-Roster Invitee Outfielders: New and Old Farmhands Unite

Juan Rivera was once the Yankees' top prospect. Now he's back... for vengeance. Actually, probably just a bench role. - Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

From top prospects of yesteryear to the newest entries into the fray, here are the players gunning for a spot behind Gardner, Grandy, and Ichiro.

As promised in this morning’s article, here is the perhaps-thrilling conclusion to the series on non-roster invitees. There are some exciting youngsters in the group, but there’s also "veteran presents" if that thrills you more…not that I would understand why it would. Regardless, here are the NRI outfielders that will be entering in the sweepstakes to join the New York Yankees’ least dangerous outfield in years.

Outfielders

Abe Almonte, OF
Bats: Both Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 23 (born 6/27/1989)
2012 (AA): 359 PA, .276/.350/.392, 17 2B, 4 HR, 30 SB, 5 CS, .338 wOBA, 106 wRC+

No relation as far as I know to Zoilo Almonte, who was born 17 days earlier, the alphabetically advanced Almonte cracked Double-A for the first time last year. Prior to that, he spent six seasons in the system going back to his 17-year-old days in the ’06 Dominican Summer League. He’s never been more than a slightly-above-league-average hitter, and his career triple slash in the minors bears a strong resemblance to his Trenton numbers at .263/.340/.388. Great speed and solid defense has been his calling card, and Almonte’s 83% success rate on the bases was terrific. His placement following Spring Training is highly dependent on where the veterans go, but a promotion to Triple-A alongside Zoilo seems to be in the cards.

Update: Abe was traded to the Seattle Mariners on February 13th for reliever Shawn Kelley. Good deal. Kelley in 2012: 44.1 IP, 85 ERA-, 91 FIP-, 9.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9. Very nice. He was even more dominant in AAA (20 IP, 0.90 ERA, 11.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9). Yes, it was in pitcher-friendly Seattle, but Kelley could certainly help. To get him for a Double-A outfielder far back on the depth chart is great.

Tyler Austin, RF
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 21 (born 9/6/1991)
2012 (A+): 148 PA, .321/.385/.478, 13 2B, 2 HR, 6 SB, 0 CS, .391 wOBA, 144 wRC+
(A-): 309 PA, .320/.405/.598, 22 2B, 14 HR, 17 SB, 2 CS, .442 wOBA, 170 wRC+

In a season mired by disappointment and injury for most Yankee prospects, Austin was the brightest light. An unheralded 13th round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, Austin has never stopped hitting since first reporting to the Rookie League. He slugged his way through the Gulf Coast League and the New York-Penn League in 2011, then ended last year in Double-A on Trenton’s playoff roster after passing through Charleston and Tampa (I didn’t include his brief two-game Trenton cameo in the stats above). Now, Austin is clearly one of the Yankees’ top few prospects with a decent case for the top spot. As Tanya has noted a few times, the Yankees were aggressive in moving Austin the past two years, so that is reason to be optimistic that they will keep him on a fast track to "the Show." It’s unclear if he’ll begin 2013 back in Tampa due to Trenton’s crowded outfield or just be placed in Double-A anyway. He certainly deserves the latter.

Matt Diaz, LF/RF
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 35 (born 3/3/1978)
2012 (MLB): 118 PA, .222/.280/.333, 6 2B, 2 HR, .268 wOBA, 64 wRC+

The elder statesman of the entire NRI group, Diaz is a complete crapshoot. A poor fielder, he will only make the 25-man roster if the Yankees see any hope in his hitting abilities. The former Brave has not been an above-average hitter since 2009 (.313/.390/.488), but the Yankees are crossing their fingers that Diaz will be better after going through much-needed surgery to fully remove a palm frond stuck in his hand for six years. He couldn’t grip a bat due to the pain of the infection, and that undoubtedly affected his hitting. Diaz could very well be the Yankees’ new threat to southpaws, but even without the palm frond bothering him, a replication of his ’09 numbers in his mid-thirties appears unlikely.

Adonis Garcia, OF
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 27 (born 4/27/1985)
2012 (AA): 126 PA, .288/.325/.492, 12 2B, 4 HR, .362 wOBA, 123 wRC+
(A+): 115 PA, .236/.296/.349, 7 2B, 1 HR, .300 wOBA, 84 wRC+

Garcia used to be a veteran of the Cuban national baseball team. He hit .334/.397/.623 in his final season in Cuba in 2010-11, then bounced around various leagues seeking to join a MLB club until the Yankees signed him on May 2nd of last year for $400,000. He fared well in a 28-game stint with Trenton after a stumbling start in Trenton, but his diminutive stature has raised some doubts about whether he can hit at higher levels. The Yankees will never know until they try, but I would rather they not favor an older, mid-level prospect like Garcia over the more promising trio of Austin, Heathcott, and Mason Williams (the latter was not invited to camp because he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery). Time will tell.

Slade Heathcott, CF
Bats: Left Throws: Left
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 22 (born 9/28/1990)
2012 (A+): 243 PA, .307/.378/.470, 16 2B, 5 HR, 17 SB, 4 CS, .389 wOBA, 142 wRC+

Due to injuries and personal problems, it’s been a somewhat-slow climb through the system for Slade Heathcott. When he has played though, he’s shown terrific pure potential and an intense style of play that scouts sometimes worry about (lest he run into a wall and ruin his career while young, Pete Reiser style). Once he got back on the field last year, he was mostly DHing until the Williams’s shoulder injury, which put him back in center full-time. He struck out in 27.2% of his plate appearances in Tampa last year, but he was otherwise-impressive and reasserted himself as one of the system’s top prospects. That half-season combined with a .388/.494/.612 showing in 18 Arizona Fall League games should have the top pick from ’09 in Trenton for Opening Day, where he will be closer to the Bronx than ever.

Ronnier Mustelier, LF/RF/3B
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 27 (born 4/27/1985)
2012 (AAA): 385 PA, .303/.359/.455, 21 2B, 10 HR, .367 wOBA, 128 wRC+
(AA): 114 PA, 353/.412/.598, 6 2B, 5 HR, .445 wOBA, 179 wRC+

"Ronnie" was another signing out of Cuba, but Garcia’s performance in Trenton paled in comparison. Following a slugging debut in 2011 in High-A, Rookie Ball, and the Arizona Fall League, Mustelier did not last long in Double-A—pitchers simply could not figure him out. He was not quite as dominant in Scranton, but was a great hitter regardless. Like Jorge Vazquez before him, his defensive difficulties make it difficult for him to crack the big-league club, but Mustelier is very different in that he actually has some plate discipline (he struck out in 13.6% of all plate appearances last year). Mustelier can also play in the outfield and not damage the team too much, whereas Vazquez was anchored to first base or DH. If Diaz and/or Rivera prove ineffective, the Yankees should actually try Ronnie in the pros if he keeps the hitting up in Scranton. He probably deserves the opportunity anyway, but the Yankees will give the vets a shot first, as they are wont to do.

Thomas Neal, OF
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 25 (born 8/17/1987)
2012 (MLB): 24 PA, .217/.250/.261, 1 2B, .230 wOBA, 42 wRC+
(AA): 470 PA, .314/.400/.467, 24 2B, 12 HR, .394 wOBA, 133 wRC+

Neal is another right-handed option for the Yankees, but since he has yet to prove he can consistently hit even Triple-A pitching, look for him to appear on either the Trenton or Scranton roster. Formerly in the San Francisco Giants’ organization, Neal earned a promotion from Double-A in 2011, but a disappointing year at Triple-A and a trade to the Cleveland Indians later, he was back in Double-A. Neal is another guy who really shouldn’t be blocking guys like Austin, Heathcott, and Williams, but we can only hope. There’s just not much to like about Neal other than good Double-A numbers in his second time around.

Juan Rivera, LF/RF/1B
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 34 (born 7/3/1978)
2012 (MLB): 312 PA, .244/.286/.375, 14 2B, 9 HR, .287 wOBA, 81 wRC+

We meet again, Mr. Rivera. The Venezuelan righty was a Top-100 prospect in ’02 and ’03 while at the apex of his minor league career in then-Triple-A Columbus, and he was rated by Baseball America as the Yankees’ top prospect entering ’03. Rivera hit around .325 in all three seasons with Columbus from 2001-03, and spent 88 games at the big-league level, though an opportunity for more was missed when he embarrassingly ran into a golf cart during practice. He was a decent young hitter who just needed a better understanding of the strike zone—overall, he hit .262/.302/.427 with 19 doubles and eight homers. Rivera was dealt along with fellow young prospects Nick Johnson and Randy Choate to the fading Montreal Expos for Javier Vazquez in December ’03. He moved on to the Los Angeles Angels a season later, but Rivera stands as one of the last Expos still active.

Following a commendable six-year career with the Angels highlighted by 20-homer seasons in ’06 and ’09, Rivera declined rather young at age 32. He had a wRC+ of 81 in half a season with the Toronto Blue Jays before being purchased by the McCourt-era Los Angeles Dodgers. A free agent at season’s end, he somehow parlayed a .274/.333/.406 second-half into a $4 million guaranteed contract. It did not work out, and the Dodgers declined the option on his contract for next year after he replicated his 81 wRC+ half-season in Toronto over a full season. Seeking outfield bench help from the right-hand side, the Yankees reunited with the lesser of the two Riveras from their ’03 AL champions on a minor-league deal a few weeks ago. As Steve mentioned in his article on Rivera, his platoon splits are not much better when he faces lefties, unlike Diaz. Unless the Yankees are giving Mustelier more credit than I think they are, the winner of the Spring Training competition between Diaz and Rivera will be the token "reserve outfielder who can’t play defense but sometimes hit a little."

Rob Segedin, RF/LF/3B
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 24 (born 11/10/1988)
2012 (AA): 182 PA, .188/.253/.279, 6 2B, 3 HR, .248 wOBA, 45 wRC+
(A+): 326 PA, .293/.359/.445, 21 2B, 7 HR, .366 wOBA, 127 wRC+

Segedin was an exciting player as an amateur, setting various New Jersey state records at Old Tappan High School less than half away from Yankee Stadium, and then mashing at Tulane University. He seemed to be on the start of a smooth trek through the system, but he hit a wall in the second half of 2011 with High-A Tampa. Segedin could only maintain a mere 77 wRC+ in 51 games with Tampa, so it took the first half of last season to get him promoted to Trenton, where he was a disaster. It might have been a slow transition like his first foray into Tampa, but he simply could not hit Double-A pitching. The Yankees also had him play most of his starts in the outfield instead of his natural third base, so it is unclear where the Yankees envision him for the future. If he struggles again in Double-A to begin 2013, his prospect status will be in dire straits.

There’s a fine chance that absolutely none of these 44 non-roster invitees makes a significant impact on the Yankees next year. However, with the major-league roster in flux due to injuries and the $189 million payroll target, this upcoming season may represent the best chance yet for an unknown to step in and exceed expectations. We will see if any of these players or the minor leaguers currently on the 40-man roster can emerge to make a difference.

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