Every year, World Series contenders end up relying on unlikely sources for crucial at-bats and big innings. Last year, Second Baseman Joe Panik played a significant role for the San Francisco Giants and Terrance Gore was a key reserve for the Kansas City Royals. Baseball America and MLB.com continually publish ‘Top 100 Prospect’ lists and rank every clubs’ best minor leaguers. Alternatively, the Sports Esquires examine unheralded prospects likely to help contending teams.
Jose Pirela – 2b – New York Yankees:
The Yankees re-signed Stephen Drew to one-year deal to hold down the Keystone position, but after his deplorable offensive production last year he shouldn’t have a lot of rope. Pirella – a natural second baseman – has hit near or above .300 in the high minors the past 3 seasons, and in those same seasons has an OBP of over .350. His consistent contact and fringy power should help him stabilize the back end of the Yankees lineup should Drew struggle or suffer an injury.
Prior to suffering a concussion sustained while running into the wall chasing a fly ball during Spring Training, Pirella was in line for the Yankees utility role. However, he has started the season on the 7-day Concussion Disabled List, and the Yankees acquired veteran utility infielder Gregorio Petit from the Astros. If Pirela is able to successfully bounce back from his concussion, then his versatility and defensive dependability should allow him to take over the Yankees utility role. Helping Pirela out in that regard is the fact that he can play all three outfield spots in addition to the infield, whereas Petit is limited to the middle-infield and third base.
James McCann – C – Detroit Tigers:
With his defensive prowess and offensive development, James McCann has forced his way onto the Tigers Opening Day roster as the backup catcher. With Alex Avila’s injury and concussion history, McCann should expect to see a significant number of innings behind the plate. Always known as a defensive minded catcher progressing through the Minor Leagues, McCann has thrown out 42%, 37%, and 40% of base stealers over the past three seasons across three different levels. With Avila hitting a career .215 against lefties, McCann should see favorable matchups as the right-half of a righty-lefty platoon which should help boost his offensive profile. As long as McCann continues his offensive development and makes consistent contact at the plate, he should log significant innings for the Tigers this season and in the future considering Avila’s impending free agency after the season.
Dariel Alvarez – OF – Baltimore Orioles:
When the Orioles signed the Cuban defector during the summer of 2013, scouts questioned whether Alvarez’s middling bat speed and slight uppercut swing would allow him to succeed in the high minors. After Alvarez’s first full season in the Minor Leagues, spent at Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, those concerns can be set aside. In 2014, Alvarez hit a combined .306 across both AA and AAA with an OPS over .800. After an impressive spring training in which he hit .343 with two home runs in 35 Grapefruit League at bats, Alvarez wasn’t reassigned to Minor League camp until five days before Opening Day.
With his power potential and exceptional arm strength Alvarez should crack an Orioles line-up this season that lost both Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz during free agency. With two outfield spots to be filled by the underwhelming quartet of Travis Snider, Delmon Young, David Lough, and Alejandro De Aza to start the season, the Orioles might not wait long to replace Markakis’ glove with the strong-armed Alvarez, especially if he gets off to a good start at Triple-A Norfolk.
Matt Barnes – RHP – Boston Red Sox:
The former first round draft selection out of Connecticut is often the forgotten man of the Red Sox pitching prospects. Consistently overlooked by the trio of lefties – Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Brian Johnson – Barnes is a young power arm that in the immediate future should provide depth for the Red Sox bullpen and in the long-term should substantively contribute to the starting rotation.
Although he made his Major League debut out of the bullpen and is more likely to contribute in that role this season, the Red Sox still see Barnes as rotation material. He has an overpowering fastball that normally sits 94-96 MPH, but can hit the upper 90’s when he reaches back for something extra. His change-up is his best secondary pitch as his curveball continues to progress, but in order to take the next step in his development Barnes needs to be more economical with his pitches and make it deeper into starts. However, if Koji Uehara is unable to stay healthy and veterans Alexi Ogando and Edward Mujica are ineffective, don’t be surprised to see Barnes contribute to the Red Sox bullpen in 2014 after continuing to impress Red Sox Manager John Farrell by striking out 16 hitters in only 12 Grapefruit League innings.