Robinson Cano, the Yankees' best homegrown player in the past decade, is no longer with the organization. He has signed his 10-year mega contract with the Mariners and now the Yankees need to find a way to make up for him. They signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann to replace their best hitter in the lineup, but what about replacing his production at second base?
They have brought Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, and Dean Anna in, but it's likely that the Yankees are still open to other options. The organization suffers from a lack of impact prospects, especially at the top levels, and especially when it comes to infielders. Perhaps one of their top in-house candidates is nothing but a fringe prospect at best and someone who might never end up reaching the majors. Can Jose Pirela be the replacement the Yankees are looking for?
Who he is
Pirela is a 24-year-old right-handed hitting second baseman who was signed out of Venezuela for $300,000 before the 2008 season and, though he's been playing pro ball since he was 17, he still has only 24 plate appearances at Triple-A, a level he finally reached this past year after six years, and three full seasons in Double-A.
He made an underwhelming debut in rookie ball with a 5.8% walk rate, a sub-.300 OBP and a wRC+ of 66, but he showed potential the following year, hitting .295/.354/.381, while upping his walk rate to 8.3% and putting up a promising 114 wRC+ for Staten Island. Pirela took a slight step back in 2010 with the Charleston RiverDogs, but he still showed promise. He hit .252/.329/.364 with a 102 wRC+, raised his walk rate again to 9.9%, managed to swipe 30 bases on the season, and hit 13 triples
In 2011, he moved up to Double-A and that's when the bottom fell out. He hit a disappointing .239/.292/.353, his walk rate bottomed out at 4.8% and his strikeout rate lifted to a career-high rate of 16.9%. His 76 wRC+ proved that it wasn't his worst year, but it was definitely a bubble-bursting season. He got another shot in 2012 and had possibly his best offensive season to date, hitting .293/.356/.448 with a 123 wRC+. He recovered some of his plate discipline, but didn't see more than 82 games of action.
This year Pirela played his third season at the Double-A level, and still remained solid with a .272/.359/.418 batting line and a 118 wRC+. He had the highest walk rate (10.6%) and lowest strikeout rate (11.5%) of his career, stole 18 bases, and hit a career-high 10 home runs. He finally got the chance to play for Scranton over five games in July, where he collected seven hits in 24 at-bats before getting sent back down to Trenton.
To add to his resume, Pirela has routinely demolished winter ball, hitting .306/.372/.441 in the Venezuelan winter league over the last four years. The 2013-2014 season has brought the most success as he has hit .332/.415/.514 with six home runs and seven triples.
As a right-handed batter, he also adds some value for the Yankees at the plate. The 2013 team hardly managed an 85 wRC+ against southpaws, which was only better than the White Sox and Marlins. This year's lineup still lacks right-handed options to bat against left-handed pitchers. In six seasons, Pirela has a .278/.335/.372 batting line against them, though his line against righties isn't too far off at .257/.324/.370. He gets on base more frequently against lefties, but he has significantly more power against righties, hitting 27 of his 33 career home runs against them. Pirela likely won't be an incredible asset against one handed pitcher over another, but he's not necessarily a platoon player either.
Still, there could be an argument made that he would benefit from playing in Yankee Stadium over PNC Field or Arm and Hammer Stadium. In 2013, the park factors for right-handed home runs at the Stadium was 122, while it was a below-average 95 in Scranton and a power-engulfing 76 in Trenton. While park factors for right-handed doubles and triples were a bit lower in Yankee Stadium, with a 94, it's easy to see how much of a benefit Pirela could get hitting there instead of Trenton, where they reached an 85 in 2013. Even though playing in New York heavily favors left-handed hitters for its short right field porch, batting in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, regardless of their handedness, is much better than the environments Yankee prospects consistently hit in the minors.
Jose Pirela began his career has a shortstop, committing 107 errors in five seasons (that's like 21 errors a year!) before permanently being moved to second base, where he has made 31 errors over seven seasons (that's only like 4.5 errors a year!). He played second all season for the first time in 2013 and made 16 errors, which would have nearly led the position in MLB.
Baseball America reported one scout saying at the time of the signing "he's got all the raw tools to stay in the middle of the diamond. The range is exceptional, the hands are soft, the arm strength is slightly above average." There was some belief that his arm strength needed to improve to stick at short, but given his trouble with his glove work, along with his bulky physique, it seemed that the transition to second had to happen.
Thrusting Pirela into the majors might be risky, but it's not unheard of. Looking at his projections next to his competition might help show what the Yankees would be in for in 2014. I averaged their projections between Steamers and Oliver to get the average, where applicable.
Obviously, none of the options are going to do better than Cano last year or this year. Compared to Anna, Johnson, and Roberts, Pirela will lead in batting average and have the lowest strikeout rate. He beats Roberts in every category, other than walk rate, and his strikeout rate will be much more manageable than Johnson's, but the competition between he and Anna might be the most evenly matched, as both project to be about in line with what all second basemen hit in 2013.
So the potential is there, but he might not project to be much more than a league-average player in a reserve role. Removing Cano from the equation and looking at Oliver-specific stats, Pirela might look a little better.
He leads his competition by WAR and stolen bases, while playing second fiddle in home runs. His defense could be a problem, but it might not be as bad as Johnson's who is going to be counted on regularly in the field.
It had been believed that Pirela never had a place with the major league team because of the presence of Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, but the best second baseman in the game is gone and the position is still kind of wide open. Pirela could squeeze himself into the equation, if the Yankees choose to believe in him. But should they? There's definitely an argument to be made that he belongs on the major league team, especially if Brian Roberts is getting a job, but he's not replacing Cano anytime soon.
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