Although pitchers and catchers are set to report to the team's complex in Tampa, Florida in a little over one month, the Yankees still have a few spots on the roster up for grabs. Some of these spots will be filled with veterans/potential Masahiro Tanaka signings, but others could be filled with (gasp!) younger players from the farm system.
An area of need for the Yankees, although it wasn't the team's biggest, was strengthening the bullpen following the retirement of Mariano Rivera (as well as Boone Logan's departure to the Colorado Rockies). So far, they've only replaced Logan with the signing of Matt Thornton. This is a decent start, but as of now the Yankees' bullpen is David Robertson-Shawn Kelley-Thornton-Preston Claiborne(?)-Cesar Cabral(?)-?-Adam Warren/Vidal Nuno. The team could certainly do better. At the same time, relievers are flying off the market, so it wouldn't be too much of a surprise at this point if they do decide to stay in-house to fill out their bullpen.
If this is the route the Yankees choose to take, there are a few prospects the team has at their disposal they can go to. First, there's Chase Whitley. Whitley had yet another solid season with Triple-A Scranton, pitching to a 3.06 ERA and 3.05 FIP in 67.2 innings. This comes a year after pitching to a 3.25 ERA and 3.70 FIP with Scranton. Whitley possesses a good fastball, an improving cutter, and a very good change up as his main go-to out-pitch.
The 24-year-old right-hander can do a little bit of everything. He can soak up some innings in the middle of the game, pitch late in the game, and even start here and there. Whitley was left off the Yankees' 40-man roster and will need to be added, but that shouldn't be a problem. There are plenty of DFA/trade candidates even after the respective Thornton and Brian Roberts deals are made official.
Next is Jose Ramirez. Even though Ramirez has been pretty solid as a starter over the years, there are still injury concerns that could push him to the bullpen long term. Last season he had numbers (3.67 ERA and 4.63 FIP split between Double-A and Triple-A in 73.2 innings) that didn't quite match up to his stuff. Ramirez boasts a fastball that can reach the high 90's; sits in the mid-90s, a wipeout change up that is easily a plus offering, and an improving slider.
There's obviously the makings of a potential number two or three starter here, but if the Yankees really feel he won't stick as a starter, they can put him in the bullpen and they could all of a sudden have, if everything goes right, a legit late-inning option to a thin bullpen. At the same time, I expect the team to keep him in the rotation to begin the season considering they gave Dellin Betances, who was a complete disaster for a 32-start stretch from 2012-2013, chance after chance before mercifully pulling the plug in the middle of the year.
As of now, I see the Yankees with 11 position players set to make the team (Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Brian Roberts, Kelly Johnson, Brendan Ryan, Brian McCann, and Francisco Cervelli) with guys like Ichiro, Vernon Wells, and Eduardo Nunez potentially getting traded/DFA'd/sent to Triple-A, respectively. For those scoring at home, that's four outfielders, five infielders, and two catchers. Normally, there are 13 position players who make the 25-man roster cut, so the Yankees have two spots open here. Even if Alex Rodriguez's suspension gets reduced to 50 games, they'll still need another infielder for the time being as well as another outfielder.
This is where Dean Anna comes into play. Anna plays up the middle, mostly at second base, and can hold his own defensively, unlike Nunez. Anna has also shown some good on-base ability in the minors, as he has a career minor league OBP of .386 in over 2200 plate appearances while posting a .410 OBP last year in close to 600 Triple-A PA's. This is something Nunez never showed even while down in the minors. Although Anna has yet to reach the majors, there is some upside here for a decent utility man, which is something Nunez has yet to prove in 270 games at the big league level. Obviously Anna isn't an actual "prospect," but, believe it or not, he's the closest thing the Yankees have to one as an infielder who is Major League ready. Anna is also on the 40-man roster, so having him make the 25-man roster out of camp wouldn't require any maneuvering.
If the Yankees do end up jettisoning Ichiro, which may or may not eventually happen, the team could use an extra outfielder given Soriano's and Beltran's respective advanced ages and declining outfield skills. Out of all the outfielders the Yankees have in the minors, prospect or not, Zoilo Almonte is first in line to claim an outfield spot if needed. He hit just .236/.274/.302 with a 55 wRC+, but it came in a limited 113 PA sample. Almonte, a switch-hitter, is better from the left-hand side. It would be better, given the construction of the roster, if he hit better from the right-hand side, but alas. Anyway, Almonte could be used as a defensive replacement given the aforementioned respective struggles of Soriano and Beltran. But, with this in mind, you can make a case for the Yankees to actually keep Ichiro if Almonte would be just a defensive replacement that doesn't get very many at-bats, but we'll see.
Finally, there's Ronnier Mustelier. Mustelier had a golden opportunity to break with the team following spring training, but injured his knee during a game while racing after a foul ball. Unfortunately, despite all the injuries to the Yankees' infield, Mustelier was never able to reach the Bronx in 2013. He hit an underwhelming .272/.319/.398 with a 101 wRC+ last year for Triple-A Scranton and will be 30 in August. Mustelier primarily played third base and corner outfield last season, so if he can hit like he did in 2012 at Scranton (128 wRC+), he could be given the opportunity with the Yankees, but it's a longshot.
I've used the word "prospect" pretty freely since Jose Ramirez is the only true "prospect" on this list, but there are a few other fringy kind of utility players the Yankees have at the upper levels of the minors (Adonis Garcia, Jose Pirela, etc.), but they may be just organizational players more than anything. A common theme in this post is the lack of true impact type prospects, especially in the infield. Since Robinson Cano debuted in 2005, the last infielder the Yankees have developed is Eduardo Nunez. Seriously. You can't make this stuff up.
Maybe Rob Refsnyder will figure out second base and Eric Jagielo may turn out well and become options down the road, but I won't hold my breath. There's also J.R. Murphy, at catcher who may be Major League ready, but is blocked for the next few years by Brian McCann. On the pitching front there's Jose Ramirez, but I'd be willing to wager a pretty good amount that he'll end up in the bullpen before it's said and done. Sure, it'd be nice to have a potential late-inning, lights-out reliever, but the Yankees need (young) starting pitching now and in the future. For now the Yankees have very little high-impact prospects (a stark contrast to the Red Sox' prospect wealth), and they'll have to make the best with what they have right now until high-end talent finally emerges.
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