It seemed like a good plan before the start of 2013. Kevin Youkilis couldn't be depended upon to man the hot corner for an entire regular season, but he probably could survive long enough to fill the void left by the rehabbing Alex Rodriguez. While Youkilis could not be expected to produce at his once near-elite level anymore, he could at least be expected to provide above-average offensive production with the potential for more, given a good hot streak at the right time. As we know now, the results didn't come anywhere close to that plan. Youkilis only started 20 games at third base last season, and his offensive production was very offensive: 78 wRC+.
The disappearance of Youkilis early in the season exposed the organization's soft underbelly in terms of major league-ready talent. A series of players from internal to external sources rotated through the position as the Yankees desperately tried to find somoeone who was at least replacement-level. Five players produced negative fWAR contributions, and only Mark Reynolds and Rodriguez delivered a wRC+ north of 78: 105 and 113, respectively.
Free agent signings like Brian McCann obviously deserve the attention, but the futility of last season's third base merry-go-round provides reason enough to take a look at these minor league transactions. It was just one example of the importance of organizational depth. From the vantage point of these moves, it appears the Yankees aren't going to depend on the likes of a David Adams equivalent next year at any position, if they can help it. So who has been brought into the system, and what might we expect from them if Plan A and Plan B go wrong again?
11/11/13: Signed free agent RHP Jim Miller to a minor league contract
Technically, Miller is not new to the Yankees, as he pitched in Scranton last year and had a late-season inning and a third audition with the team. He'll be 32 by next April, and his entire major league career has consisted of 64 innings pitched with a 4.64 FIP. Last year, he was cut from the 40-man roster to make room for the mid-September acquisition of Brendan Ryan. So why bring back a minor league journeyman at age 32?
Miller has always been proficient at generating strikeouts, even in his brief appearances at the major league level. He has struggled with control though, posting a 5.15 BB/9 in the majors due to walking 12.9% of all batters faced. He's also been somewhat hittable, with consistent hit tallies at or above his level of innings pitched. While Miller did not materially change his control last year, he did take another step forward by pushing his strike out rate to 33.6%. There's always value in having relief arms that can punch out a third of the batters he faces. Miller is, however, entering his age 32 season, and subsequently one should be cognizant of the risk for velocity decline.
11/12/13: Signed free agent 3B Zelous Wheeler to a minor league contract
Entering his age-26 season next year, Wheeler has earned the unfortunate title of minor league journeyman. Next year will be his seventh season in professional ball, and he has yet to crack the majors. Wheeler is a third baseman, and he has toiled in the Baltimore Orioles system for the last two years. Not much has been written concerning Wheeler as a prospect, but statistically, he appears to have fairly decent control of the plate. He generally produces as many walks as he strikes out, and he has kept his whiff rate in the teens. His wRC+ figures have usually hovered around 114-129, and his isolated power figure has been between .120-.150. Despite his lack of appearances in the big show, Steamer projects him to perform at a 90 wRC+ level if called upon. That's not desirable, but it would have been a big improvement over last year's production from third base.
11/13/13: Signed free agent CF Antoan Richardson to a minor league contract
Richardson did get his shot on the big stage, but it encompassed an entirety of four plate appearances back in 2011 with the Atlanta Braves. He will be 30 next spring and joining his fifth organization in eight professional seasons. Richardson appears to be the classic speedy outfielder with absolutely no pop. His slugging percentage has been below his on-base percentage every season. However, he has learned to control the plate and use his agility to leg out a lot of hits. His batting average on balls in play has been above .340 almost every season. Subsequently, his wRC+ has been above-average in the 115-120 area. Steamer also projects him to reach a 90 wRC+ if called upon, but his real attribute is his speed. Last year with the Minnesota Twins at two levels of their farm system, Richardson stole 39 bags with an 85% success rate.
11/19/13: Signed free agent 3B Yamaico Navarro to a minor league contract
Navarro might play multiple roles for organizational depth. He's started 13 games at third, 11 at second, 10 in the outfield, and nine games at shortstop in his major league career. That total has led to only 199 plate appearances with a whopping 39 wRC+ figure, which is heavily skewed by his first taste in 2010 with the Boston Red Sox when he spotted a -34 wRC+. Last year with the Orioles, he had 31 trips to the plate and posted an 89 wRC+. Steamer projects him to play at a 94 wRC+ level next year in the major leagues.
Navarro is 26 years old now, and he has generally been an above-average hitter in the minor leagues. Unlike the aforementioned position players, he is more of a power hitter with elevated strikeout rates as well. Last year with the Orioles' top farm team, he produced a 118 wRC+ with a .151 isolated power figure. Navarro will add in the occasional stolen base, but his calling card is his bat; he has consistently produced around an .800 OPS for the last four years at the highest minor league level. In other words, he has been decent on offense, but not consistently outstanding enough to force his way to the top.
He hasn't played enough at the major league level to have any advanced defensive analysis available, but it appears he might be prone to making mistakes in the field. Navarro committed 18 errors in 107 games last year with the Norfolk Tides. So his life as a fringe utility player appears understandable. Still, his age and versatility make him a good organizational depth player, and one who might not embarrass the Yankees when he's at the plate. The Navarro and Wheeler signings might also expose the Yankees off-season scouting strategy, as both players did well in their winter ball leagues.
11/20/13: Acquired 2B Dean Anna from the San Diego Padres for RHP Ben Paullus
Last but not least, the Yankees recently acquired Anna from the Padres via trade. Anna just turned 27 years old a couple of days ago, and he also hasn't faced major league pitching to date. Next year will be his seventh professional season. The previous six years were all spent in the Padres organization. Last year was his first season at the highest minor league level; in 582 plate appearances at Tucson, he produced a wRC+ of 140 with a wOBA of .400. His strikeout to walk rate was nearly even, and his overall strikeout rate has been in the mid-teens or lower, like last year's 11.2%. However, this is the Pacific Coast League that we're talking about, and a heavy dose of skepticism should be applied to offensive numbers coming out of this league. Nonetheless, Anna has shown good plate discipline over his minor league career. Perhaps Steamer's projection of 96 wRC+ isn't so farfetched in this case.
Anna is the last of the middle infield organizational depth help on this list, as he split time fairly evenly between second and short over the last few years. He committed 11 errors in 132 games last year between the two positions, and had a fielding percentage of about a .98 rate. Anna could be an intriguing player next spring. He might be a material upgrade at the plate over Jayson Nix if he can earn his way onto the team in the middle infield utility spot. The question will primarily be whether his offensive production in the PCL will translate at all to the top level.
The Yankees as an organization appear to have learned from their mistakes last year, and they have already taken steps this month to bring in more major league-ready depth at the highest levels. It's great to have high-ceiling young guys ready to fill in, but high-ceiling prospects are exciting specifically because they are so rare. When the injury bug struck the Yankees last year, the organization wasn't ready to respond with viable replacement-level players. These moves aren't going to set Yankees fans' hearts aflutter, but they should help the team avoid the calamity witnessed at too many positions last year.