PHOENIX—Yankees prospect Brandon Laird followed a strong 2009 Arizona Fall League stint with an MVP season with Double-A Trenton of the Eastern League in 2010. The righthanded hitting corner infielder hit .291/.355/.523 with 23 homeruns and 90 RBIs for Trenton before earning an early August promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
So what’s he doing back in the AFL this year as a member of the Phoenix Desert Dogs?
The Yankees returned Laird, 24, to Arizona this fall primarily to get experience at a new position. “They want me to learn to play the outfield so that I can become more versatile,” Laird said.
Laird realizes that the odds of him making it to New York increases with the more positions he can play.
“If you look at the corners up there (New York), there are two great players—-Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira,” Laird added. “With me going to the outfield, left and right field, it gives me two more positions. I can play third, if someone needs some rest I can play first, left, right, even DH. I think that’s going to be my best bet to get to the big leagues the quickest way.”
Regardless of where he’s playing on the field, it’s his bat that will get jovial Laird to the big leagues. He’s regarded as an average defender at his natural position of third base and has below average speed. The aggressive contact hitter is faring well on his return to the AFL, batting .352/.371/.647 through the season’s first two weeks, numbers comparable to last year’s performance when he hit .333/.406/.633 with six home runs.
Laird, whose brother Gerald is a veteran big league catcher with the Tigers, has another important reason to impress the Yankees brass this fall. It’s his protection year, meaning that the California native must be added to the organization’s 40-man roster; otherwise he’ll be made available in the annual Rule 5 draft. He’s close enough to being big league ready that another team would almost certainly pick him if he were available. But Laird isn’t worried about that possibility.
“I had a great season this year,” Laird said. “I was Eastern League player of the year. I think my numbers are just fine. (The Yankees) know what I can do. I came out here last year and did real well. I’m out here trying to do it again. Whatever happens, happens. If they protect me, great, if they choose not to I can’t control that.”
But Laird’s preference is to stay with the organization that drafted him out of Cypress (Calif.) JC in the 27th round of the 2007 draft. He got a taste of what it’s like to be a Yankee when he was invited to major league camp this past spring training.
If Laird needs a refresher on the “Yankee way,” he’s got the perfect mentor in Arizona this fall. Yankees legend Don Mattingly, recently named manager of the Dodgers for the 2011 season, is skippering the Desert Dogs this fall.
Laird is soaking up as much information as he can from Mattingly, who played 14 seasons with the Yankees as well as serving as a coach under Joe Torre.
“He tells you to have fun and play the game hard and the right way,” Laird said about Mattingly. “I pick his brain about hitting and stuff and he gives me pointers. It’s a privilege to have someone like that coaching you; I’m just going to take as much as I can from him.”
“He can hit, I’ll tell you that,” Mattingly said about Laird. “He swings the bat good, he’s a confident kid. I like that he’s got some pop in there. To me, he looks like a player and he’s got a chance to play in the big leagues on an everyday basis.”
Mattingly knows as well as anyone else in the game how difficult it is for young players to make the Yankees big league roster.
“To break in, you’ve got to be able to play the game,” Mattingly said. “You’ve got to go out and put up numbers. Some of the things that will differentiate you (are), do you know how to run the bases? If you’ve got to get a bunt down can you get it down? (Whether or not) you’re throwing the ball to the right base, you play smart. There’s a lot more than just being able to drive in runs and look like you’re a pretty good hitter.”
Laird is ready for that challenge, perhaps as early as next season.
“I’m going to go in there with the attitude that I can try to make this club,” Laird said.
“Whatever happens, happens. If I have to go back to Triple-A, I’m going to perform there and just try to get to the big leagues as fast as I can.”
• Bryce Harper, this year’s number one overall draft pick, arrived in Arizona last week and played his first two official pro games as a member of the Scottsdale Scorpions. The Nationals outfielder, who turned 18 just four days before his debut, became the second youngest player to appear in an AFL game. (Mets prospect Fernando Martinez played his first AFL game on his 18th birthday in the 2006 season). As a member of the Scorpions taxi squad, Harper is eligible to play only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Harper impressed observers with his raw power during batting practice and hit the ball well against the older AFL pitchers in his two games, going 3 for 8. His first hit was an opposite field, bases-loaded ground-rule double in his fourth and final at-bat in Wednesday night’s game against the Mesa Solar Sox, a ball that would have left the yard in most ballparks. The ball bounced over the left-center fence in Scottsdale Stadium, which has spacious dimensions of 360 down the left-field line and 430 to center field.
Harper’s pregame batting practice sessions drew more than the usual number of media and scouts, as well as opposing players wanting to get their first look at the young slugger. Official attendance at Wednesday’s game was 822 while the Saturday afternoon contest drew 919, both about twice the normal attendance.
• Nearly overlooked in the week’s Harper-mania was the big game turned in by Scottsdale outfielder Marc Krauss (Diamondbacks) on Friday night against the Javelinas. The lefthanded hitter drove in seven runs in a 12-4 Scorpion victory, including an eighth-inning grand slam off Javelina pitcher Matt Daly (Blue Jays).
• Another Nationals farmhand showing impressive power this year is Scorpion catcher Derek Norris, 21, who belted his second home run in the Saturday afternoon game at Scottsdale. Norris missed last year’s AFL season when he broke the hamate bone in his left hand during instructional league.