Back in 2011, when I first saw Jose Pirela in spring training in Tampa, Fla., bound for Double-A Trenton at the time, Yankees Vice President of Baseball Operations Mark Newman tapped me on the shoulder.
“Pirela is a good player,” said Newman. “I really like a lot of the things he does.”
At the time, Pirela, a native of Valera, Venezuela, was a 20-year-old who certainly passed the eye test. He had a sweet swing and was coming off a season in which he stole 30 bases at Class-A Tampa.
He looked good in spring training that year, slapping balls all over the place and handling most plays at shortstop. Turn the cloxk ahead three years and a season, and the affable Pirela is coming to the Yankees today after appendicitis sidetracked Martin Prado and put him on the 60-day disabled list.
Ironically, Pirela, who always had a booster in Newman, arrives in The Bronx as the latter, according to reports, will retire after the season after being informed his contract would not be renewed.
What is to be expected of Pirela? After he hit .305 (153-for-535) with 21 doubles, 11 triples and 10 homers at Scranton in 2014, building an OPS of .792, many fans asked why he wasn’t called up before. He’s a great kid, does a lot of things well, can spark a team, but is only adequate defensively. He has worked hard to get there.
He is best at both second base, which he handles in average fashion, or in a corner outfield position, where an arm that is a bit above-average serves well. His road has not always been easy.
“I just try to work and improve myself,” he always said. “I know I can play.”
At Trenton in 2011, stationed at shortstop, he went through a learning process. He hit just .239 (112-for-468) and making 37 errors. It wasn’t pretty, but many point out Derek Jeter once at 56 in a season at then-Class-A Greensboro.
He battled injuries back at Trenton in 2012, but hit .293 (93-for-317) and had an OPS of .804. He alternated among second base, third base and left field, with only 11 errors. The switch away from shortstop seemed to boost his game.
Returning to Trenton in 2013, he seemed much more confident, hitting .272 (125-for-459) with 27 doubles and 10 home runs. He piled up clutch hot after clutch it and helped Trenton to the 2013 Eastern League title. He was easily the Thunder’s best player. Alternating between second base and the outfield, he had 16 errors in 116 games – a definite improvement.
His handling and speed on the double play also improved, and he seemed to learn how to play within himself.
“No doubt Jose was one of the reasons we got to the playoffs and w0n,” said Trenton manager Tony Franklin. “He came through for us in a lot of situations.”
Pirela also got his first taste of Triple-A play in 2013, hitting .304 (7-for-23) in five games.
In 2014, he played 68 games in the middle infield – 60 at second base and eight at shortstop – making just seven errors – and 12 at first base. He played 50 games in the outfield, appearing at all three positions, with five assists in 50 games.
Best yet, he was named a postseason International League All-Star.
Pirela, who won’t turn 25 until Nov. 24, has honed his game well. He has excellent plate management and is a good base-runner. Defensively, he has worked hard to improve and is confident in what he needs to do,
Newman was right on Pirela a few years ago. It’s been fun to watch his game mature. His energy will certainly help the Yankees now and in the future.