Mustelier competing to provide another option at third
Yankees evaluating alternatives in wake of Teixeira's injury, Youk's flexibility
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- When Curtis Granderson went down with a fractured right forearm, the Yankees planned to let Ronnier Mustelier compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster. That plan had Mustelier as a right-handed-hitting outfielder, not in the conversation as a third baseman.
But very little has gone according to plan for the Yankees this spring. They've had to make adjustments, and this one might have Mustelier playing some third base, as Mark Teixeira's strained right wrist tendon will allow the Yankees to utilize Kevin Youkilis' experience at first and third base.
If they decide Mustelier is a good right-handed-hitting option off the bench, they could have Youkilis spend some time at first while Teixeira's out and create additional playing time for the Cuban refugee with the heartwarming story, who could then fill in at third base and in the corner outfield spots.
"He's been good," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The kid can hit, there's no doubt about it."
Indeed, there aren't many questions about the 28-year-old's bat. He's hit well in New York's Minor League system each of the past two years and thus far this spring, going 6-for-17 with a triple and a homer in 10 games. But there has been some concern about the 5-foot-10, 210-pounder's defense.
Mustelier shrugged off those questions earlier this spring, saying with certainty that he can field well enough to earn a job in the Majors. He's been working lately at third base, and he entered Sunday's 3-0 win over the Blue Jays as the backup third baseman. He recorded the only out he had a chance to get, reeling in a pop fly in foul territory for the second out of the ninth inning.
He has primarily been an outfielder since joining the organization for a mere $50,000, but he saw some time at third base last year for Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He worked some at third base Saturday on a back field at the club''s Spring Training complex with Girardi and Mick Kelleher, the Yankees' first-base coach and infield instructor.
"We're going to look at him [at third base]," Girardi said. "In talking to him, it's where he played most in Cuba. He's played mostly outfield here with us in the Minor Leagues, but that was his main position."
Girardi will start Youkilis at first base at least once this week, though he wasn't sure Sunday which day that will be. But he left little doubt that the Yankees aren't limiting themselves to looking for a first baseman to replace Teixeira straight up.
"It's kind of almost looking at two positions," Girardi said. "The most important thing is we take the player that's going to help us the most. By having Youk, that helps us. If we feel like there's a guy who can help us at third more than first, you do that. If there's a guy that can help you at first more than third, you leave Youk at third. Youk allows us to pick who we believe the best player's going to be."
They certainly still could opt to use Dan Johnson, 33, or Juan Rivera, 34, at first base or try out Jayson Nix or Eduardo Nunez at third. The Yankees tend to prefer players with Major League experience, and those three fit that description more so than Mustelier, who has only played 89 games in Triple-A.
Rivera, who can also play the outfield, went 3-for-4 with three RBIs on Sunday, bringing his Spring Training average to .346. But Girardi said Sunday that the club will keep an open mind about who it chooses to fill out its Opening Day roster.
"I think you have to look at everybody in camp," Girardi said. "I think you'll see a lot of players here for a long time just because of that."
Mustelier certainly has proven his ability to hit. He posted a .356/.397/.527 batting line over 36 games in 2011, then he hit .314 with an .859 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A last season, hitting 15 homers and 27 doubles while only striking out 68 times in 499 plate appearances. And he believes he can crack the Yankees' roster.
"That is why I'm here," he said recently through an interpreter. "That is my objective, making this team."
Mustelier told his story to reporters earlier this month. He fled his home in Santiago, Cuba, and took a boat along with 19 other people to Cancun, Mexico. He left behind his family, including his 5-year-old son Ronnier Jr., who hasn't seen his father since 2009. He speaks daily to those he left behind -- mother, father, son, friends and family -- but hopes he'll be able to see them in person soon.
"It's a very difficult thing to do, but like I said before, it's part of the sacrifice and I'm doing this for him," Mustelier said.
If Mustelier somehow finds his way onto the Opening Day roster, he would give the Yankees and their fans something to cheer for this season -- even if it wasn't what they had planned.
"Oh, I'm sure he would gain some popularity if he was to come up and perform," Girardi said.