For those who missed it, erstwhile Yankee third catcher Wil Nieves cleared waivers this past Thursday and was reassigned to Columbus. Having retained Nieves, the Yankees immediately designated Koyie Hill for assignment (who has since cleared waivers himself) in order to promote Matt Smith to the major league bullpen in anticipation of Jaret Wright's Saturday start. As a result the Yankee bench is down to four men and one catcher, while the Yankee pitching staff has swelled to twelve men.
Twelve pitchers are unnecessary, even if one of them is trapped in limbo between the infrequently required fifth starters spot (next appearance: Saturday April 29) and long relief. Still, the promotion of Smith is to be applauded. A 26-year-old lefty drafted by the Yankees in 2000, Smith excelled after being converted to relief last year, posting a 2.70 ERA and striking out 9.94 men per nine innings between Trenton and Columbus, though with a few too many walks. Smith made his major league debut on Friday night retiring his only batter, lefty Joe Mauer, on a groundout to second.
Further bullpen moves are on the horizon as Aaron Small and Octavio Dotel have both started pitching in extended spring training games. Small threw four innings yesterday in his third game of the extended spring posting this line: 4 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 4 K, 48 pitches. Dotel will make his extended spring debut with one inning today. Small is reportedly just building up arm strength and could return by the end of the month. Dotel is still projected for early June, but appears to be ahead of that schedule, though the Yankees plan to take things slowly with him as he's coming off Tommy John surgery.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have signed first baseman Carlos Peña and reliever Jesus Colome to minor league deals. Colome was released by the Devil Rays on Thursday after just one appearance in which he faced two batters, walking one and retiring the other. Colome lost his roster spot to minor league journeyman Scott Dunn, which is an indication of his talents. Now 27, Colome pitched in part of five seasons with the Devil Rays, his best being 2004 when he posted a 3.27 ERA in 41 1/3 innings striking out 8.71 men per nine innings and walking 3.92 per nine. Last year, however, things went to pot as his hit and homer rates nearly doubled, while his strikeout rate dropped by more than three Ks per nine and his ERA swelled by more than a run and a quarter. Given the arms they already have on hand in Columbus and due back from the DL, things will have to go awfully awry for Colome to penetrate the Yankee bullpen.
Peña, meanwhile, is a very poor man's answer to Hee Seop Choi. A slick-fielding, lefty-hitting first baseman, the 27-year-old Peña has power and patience, but has been unable to put them together after more than 1650 major league at-bats. Once a top prospect in the Rangers system, Peña was snagged by the A's prior to the 2002 season in a six-player deal that netted Texas Gerald Laird and Ryan Ludwick, but after just a half season of disappointing production with Oakland, Peña became one of the key players in the three-team trade that sent Ted Lilly to the A's, Jeremy Bonderman to the Tigers and Jeff Weaver to the Yankees. Peña did slightly better with the Tigers over the remainder of the 2002 season, but failed to show improvement as the Tiger's full-time first baseman over the next two seasons. After hitting just .181/.307/.283 over the first two months of 2005, the Tigers lost patience with Peña, sending him down to triple-A Toledo, where he caught fire, hitting .311/.424/.525. Back with the big club, he hit seven home runs in his first eight games before settling back down to hit just .235/.284/.490 for the remaining month of the season, finishing the season with 95 strikeouts in 295 plate appearances. With Chris Shelton and Dmitri Young on hand and a full outfield of Ordoñez, Granderson and Monroe, the Tigers needed little more than Peña's dismal spring showing to give him his release just before the 2006 season began.
I don't really see how Peña would be an improvement over what Andy Phillips could give the Yankees. Certainly Peña has a lot more big league experience, but that has only allowed him to establish a level of performance (career: .243/.330/.459) that I'm confident Phillips could surpass if given proper playing time. The only upside I see here is that Peña is left-handed and could work his way into a DH platoon with Phillips should Joe Torre ever decide that would like to get an extra base hit or two out of the position. But that's a long ways off, as Peña will have to first work his way back into shape, then prove himself worthy of a roster spot. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how Peña's presence in Columbus affects Eric Duncan, who is learning first base with the Clippers, but struggling at the plate. Could Peña's arrival at Columbus bounce the Yankees' #2 prospect back down to Trenton (which is probably where he should have started the season anyway)? And if so, what might that do to the confidence Duncan built up between winning the Arizona Fall League MVP and the J.P. Dawson Award for best Yankee rookie in camp this spring?