I’ve been an avid fan of moving Brian Roberts to a bench position, or perhaps even off the active roster, in favor of Kelly Johnson. Roberts hasn’t been good in five years, and despite limited playing time and learning new positions, I’ve preferred Johnson’s power potential this season. On the other hand, the Yankees seem to like Roberts’ ability to switch-hit. Being able to hit for both sides is really all he’s got going for him at this point, but that point is moot when the numbers continue to show that he can’t hit anyone.
Roberts is now batting .239/.317/.350 in 203 plate appearances this season. He’s started 49 games, and he’s shown that his age and injury troubles have hurt him both defensively and offensively. 2009 was the last time Roberts had an OPS over .800, and it was the last time he played a full season. I’d love to see Johnson get a chance at his true position of second base, but the team seems unwilling to give Johnson the torch. The Yankees could also give Brendan Ryan a shot at the position, but I’m not sure how much of an offensive upgrade he’d be over Roberts.
With the versatility of the switch-hitting Yangervis Solarte, the Yankees can now look for more offense in either second base or third base. Fortunately, the team has two hot-hitting second baseman in Triple-A and Double-A. EJ wrote about Rob Refsnyder last week and the right-hander has done nothing but hit since then. After posting a 1.001 OPS through the month of May, Refsnyder is now hitting .517/.533/.759 in 30 plate appearances in June.
As Refsnyder continues his breakout performance, we fans wait to hear exactly where he’ll be promoted. The notion at the moment is that the Yankees will move him to Triple-A, however that would create a log jam between another red-hot second baseman, the 24-year-old Jose Pirela, who is also mashing up Scranton with a .330/.367/.464 slash this season.
“There are more guys coming, and I think Scranton is going to see some more players coming up from Trenton too,” Cashman said. “Rob Refsnyder is swinging the bat really well in Double-A. Getting Pirela over at first base could very well open up a spot for him, too. Peter O’Brien is knocking the cover off the ball. You might see him coming up here soon.”
Over the last two seasons, Pirela has averaged just under an .800 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A, so it’s not surprising to see him all the way up to an .831 OPS in 242 plate appearances this year. In the past, Pirela has shown some pop in his bat from time-to-time, some speed, a great ability to make contact, and a lack of strikeouts. His patience at the plate can be questionable at times, but he makes up for it by keeping his whiff rates low and making contact.
Recently, the Yankees tried Pirela out at first base as well, indicating that they’re ready to shake things up. I’m not sure if this move is to make room for Refsnyder at the Triple-A level while Pirela gets more experience around the infield, or if the Yankees want to call him up to the MLB in a similar roll to Johnson.
“He can swing the bat,” Cashman said. “As you see us moving the chess pieces around, you can see us struggling with the defensive part with the backup to Teixeira at first base. We’ve moved Sizemore over there a little bit. Now we’re moving Pirela over just to prepare for what ifs.”
Is Pirela an upgrade over Roberts? At this point, it seems that anyone that can swing the bat is an upgrade over the 36-year-old. The Yankees’ infield is in desperate enough shape to start rolling the dice on other players, and Pirela could potentially flourish in the Bronx. He’s run into a lot of success in Winter Leagues and outside of the Yankees’ pitcher-friendly minor league parks. At the moment, he’s hitting .350/.384/.504 away from PNC Field, though last year he actually had better numbers in Arm & Hammer Park than on the road. Over his career, he hasn’t shown major platoon splits, though he’s surprisingly hitting right-handers much better this season. Finally, though there was some concern about his defense, Pirela has experience at every non-catcher infield position, and he’s played the corner outfield as well, so he can offer the Yankees a lot of versatility if they want to bench older bats like Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran, or Mark Teixeira.
At this point, Pirela’s biggest offering is that he’s not named Brian Roberts, but there is indeed some upside there. This isn’t the first time Pirela has dominated his competition, and there’s a decent chance that he could at least be a regular major league bench player. With the way the team is playing and the lack of production out of the second base position, it’s time to shake things up and see what their farm system can offer. With any luck, the Yankees may actually have a major league second baseman somewhere between Pirela and Refsnyder.