The Yankees enter the All-Star break within shouting distance of first place in a mediocre American League East.
Most analysts are in agreement the team needs improvements, but with a trade market that’s both thin and seemingly costly, here are several ways the Yankees can immediately upgrade their team for the stretch run – all without making a deal:
1. Institute a defensive platoon at shortstop
New Yankees starters Brandon McCarthy and Shane Greene both induce groundballs more than 55 percent of the time. On the days they pitch, while they’re on the mound, Brendan Ryan needs to play shortstop.
Neither McCarthy or Greene will ever be mistaken for the ace of a major league staff, however, they are solid starters whose positives can be accentuated by improving the infield defense around them. In Ryan, the Yankees have a defensive savant. From 2009 to 2012, Ryan racked up at least 18 Defensive Runs Saved each season. In 5,558.2 career innings at short he has 96 DRS. In 22,761.2 innings at short, Derek Jeter has -154 DRS and has -7 DRS this season alone.
While taking the Captain out of the lineup can be tricky, there are ways around this: (1) Jeter can enter the game in the sixth or seventh inning (whenever the starter is removed) to bat for Ryan and play until the end of the game; (2) Jeter can start the game at designated hitter, shifting slumping Carlos Beltran to the bench; (3) the 40-year-old Jeter could be rested when McCarthy and/or Greene start, preserving his body for the stretch run, and possibly the playoffs.
2. Call up RHP Jairo Heredia
The Yankees rotation is currently Hiroki Kuroda, David Phelps, Chase Whitley, McCarthy and Greene. But Whitley, pitching his first season as a starter, will likely be shifted to the bullpen soon in order to limit his innings.
When that move happens, the Yankees should call up righthanded pitcher Heredia to fill the final rotation spot. In seven minor league seasons, Heredia has a 3.1 strikeout to walk ratio and 3.59 ERA. Heredia, originally from the Dominican Republic, made his first start for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on July 11 and was very good. He pitched five innings, allowing six hits and one earned run while throwing fewer than 80 pitches. The strike-throwing righthander walked none and struck out five. If Heredia keeps turning in strong performances like that, he should be ready to join the big league club sometime in late July or early August.
Here’s why you may not have heard of Heredia before: He’s 24, which, in prospect land, means he’s a little too old. But don’t let the age scare you off. Heredia missed the 2012 season recovering from shoulder surgery, setting him behind in his development schedule. He’s since proven his health, throwing 131.1 innings in the past two seasons, striking out 135 and walking 38, a 3.5 strikeout to walk rate.
3. Call up 2B/RF Rob Refsnyder
The 23-year-old second baseman/right fielder hit well last year in Single-A, but he really blazed atop prospect lists this season with his performance in Double-A and Triple-A. Refsnyder is hitting .333 with a .403 on-base percentage and .547 slugging percentage overall. The only level he’s yet to conquer is the major leagues.
Yankees second baseman this year are hitting .253 with a .323 OBP and .398 slugging percentage. That .721 on-base plus slugging percentage does rank sixth in the American League. But the Yankees need to improve wherever possible, and the team’s second baseman are among the roster’s weaker areas.
Kelly Johnson is hitting .216 with a .301 OBP and has a .201 average since April 16. Brian Roberts is batting .243 with a .308 OBP. Yangervis Solarte has a .185 average and .269 OBP since May 15.
If nothing else, Refsnyder can’t be any worse.
4. Call up INF/OF Jose Pirela
In the vein of “Johnson, Roberts and Solarte aren’t doing anything anyway”, Pirela, like Refsnyder, deserves a shot. The Triple-A All-Star is hitting .321 with a .362 OBP and .452 slugging percentage. He’s also defensively versatile. This season he’s played second base, first base, shortstop, rightfield and leftfield. The righthanded batter has hit better against righthanded pitching (.841 OPS) this season, but can also handle lefties (.734 OPS). If we look at Refsnyder as the likely starter at second base, Pirela would take on the role of a super sub.
5. Call up OF Taylor Dugas
Dugas is a name you may not have heard before. He’s 24 years old, suffering from the same “old prospect” label as Heredia. But consider this about Dugas: In 248 career minor league games he has 145 walks and 114 strikeouts. That’s an eye at the plate that would have Mr. Bean salivating, nevermind Billy Beane.
Dugas, like Heredia, also isn’t some minor league hanger-on. He was signed out of the University of Alabama and only debuted in 2012. Like Refsnyder, Dugas dominated both Double-A and Triple-A this season. His season line: .300 average, .398 OBP, .420 slugging.
Dugas has only a .371 career slugging percentage, so he’s not going to be a boomer in the Bronx. But, along with Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, he’s likely to be a high on-base player who sets the table.
He’s mostly played centerfield in Triple-A, but Dugas has his most minor league experience in left and also has logged significant time in right. If the Yankees called him up, he’d likely be a candidate to play everyday in rightfield. Carlos Beltran can’t play the position right now due to injury. Ichiro Suzuki has put forth an admirable effort this season, but he has a .316 OBP since May 26.
American League rightfielders have a .729 OPS, but Yankees rightfielders are 13th in the league with a .668 OPS. It’s a clear area of need for New York.
Dugas is a lefthanded hitter, though he’s performed well against southpaws in an extremely limited sample size at Triple-A (.929 OPS in 12 at-bats). If the Yankees wanted to utilize the platoon advantage, however, they could play Dugas in right against righthanders and use Refsnyder or Pirela there when a lefty is on the mound.
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None of the four players mentioned here – Heredia, Pirela, Refsnyder and Dugas – are on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, nevermind the team’s 25-man roster, so some moves will need to be made in order to get the quartet to the majors. If Masahiro Tanaka needs more than six weeks to recovery from his UCL injury, or will need Tommy John surgery, he could be moved to the 60-day disabled list to create one spot. Underperforming or spare infielders like Solarte, Johnson, Roberts or Zelous Wheeler could be designated for assignment. The same could be done for pitchers Bruce Billings, Jeff Francis, David Huff or Bryan Mitchell.
Caveats: (1) One of Johnson, Wheeler or Solarte will need to be retained so someone can play third base; (2) If the Yankees want a second lefthander in the pen, the team will need to keep either Jeff Francis or David Huff. At least until lefthanded relief prospect Tyler Webb is ready (perhaps sometime in August).
With the above moves in mind, the Yankees second half roster would look like this:
ROTATION: Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, David Phelps, Shane Greene, Jairo Heredia (5)
BULLPEN: David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Shawn Kelley, Adam Warren, Matt Thornton, Chase Whitley, Jeff Francis/David Huff (7)
INFIELDERS: Derek Jeter, Brendan Ryan, Mark Teixeira, Jose Pirela, Rob Refsnyder, Kelly Johnson/Yangervis Solarte (6)
OUTFIELDERS: Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran, Taylor Dugas (5)
CATCHERS: Brian McCann, Francisco Cervelli (2)