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Jose Pirela: Locked in, and locked out

TAMPA, Fla. -- Among New York Yankees who have had at least 20 spring training at-bats, one player sits atop the pack in batting average (.391), on-base percentage (.462), slugging average (.652) and OPS (1.114): Jose Pirela.

He is hitting more than 200 points higher than Brett Gardner, Stephen Drew and Mark Teixeira. He has more extra-base hits than anyone on the team.

And unless someone gets hurt, or perhaps less likely, traded, the 25-year-old from Venezuela has virtually no shot to leave Tampa with the Yankees when the team heads north on April 4.

"I don’t want to have to say there’s no chance of him making our roster, but I think [GM] Brian [Cashman] said it, our roster was fairly set,'' Joe Girardi said. "You don’t ever lock yourself in and say this is exactly what it’s going to be, but we came to spring training pretty sure, excluding the second catcher, who the 13 [position players] were going to be. They were kind of signed to do that.''

This is not to say that it never happens; last spring, Yangervis Solarte, who had kicked around in the minor leagues for eight seasons with two other organizations, had such an eye-popping spring the Yankees had no choice but to make room for him, and wound up trading away Eduardo Nunez to do it. And the Yankees eventually wound up turning Solarte into Chase Headley, who is now their starting third baseman and is having a fine spring himself.

And in truth, Pirela's prospects brightened somewhat two weeks ago, when Brendan Ryan was sidelined by a back strain, and again this week, when Jacoby Ellsbury went down with an oblique strain. Unlike Rob Refsnyder, another rookie infielder whom the Yankees had touted along with Pirela in the winter as possible candidates for the second base job before they signed Stephen Drew, the club likes Pirela's versatility in the field, as well. He played left field Wednesday night against the Braves, and Girardi said he would give Pirela a start in center field as well sometime next week. Meanwhile, the lockers all around him continue to empty out as the non-roster invites are sent back to minor-league camp, while Pirela is still here.

Still, the odds are against Pirela, if only because the Yankees roster is as tough to get into as the owner's box at Yankee Stadium.

Right now, the starting infield is set: Teixiera, Drew, Didi Gregorius and Headley. So is the outfield: Ellsbury, Gardner and Carlos Beltran, with Chris Young as the backup. Brian McCann, of course, will catch and either John Ryan Murphy or Austin Romine will be the backup. Alex Rodriguez and Garrett Jones are set as DH-slash-backup infielders. And Brendan Ryan is signed to serve as the backup shortstop. That adds up to 13 position players. Game, set, match.

Unless, of course, Ryan -- who will play in his first game on Friday against the Tigers in Lakeland -- or Ellsbury turn out not to be ready to go north on Opening Day. Or, if the Yankees decide to trade one of the backups, or maybe even Drew -- which seems highly unlikely since he is guaranteed $5 million coming off a season in which he hit .162.

"Things happen in spring training some times and you make adjustments,'' Girardi said.

Pirela admitted to me today that he had heard the talk in the off-season of the possibility that he and Refsnyder would compete for a major-league job while he was playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .296 (.406 against lefties), but said his hopes were not dashed when he heard the Yankees had signed Drew.

"I'm just going to play really hard and keep working (to make the team),'' Pirela said. "That's their decision. I'm just waiting for my opportunity.''

Girardi said that is exactly the right attitude to have, a lesson he learned the hard way as a young player.

"You just have to hope if you continue to play the way you’re playing and you continue to have success, you’re going to get your chance,'' he said. "Sometimes your opportunities don’t come as fast as you want them as a player and sometimes they come faster than you think. You have to be able to handle them. You have to be mentally strong enough to handle whatever.''

Girardi said he may have blown an opportunity when, after getting sent down by the Chicago Cubs in 1989, he spent more time feeling sorry for himself than working to get back to the big leagues. "I was kinda pouting a little bit, and it cost me time,'' he said. "So you've got to be able to say, you know what, it doesn’t matter, I’m just going to go out and play, because things happen quick here. Injuries sometimes happen real quick. And you don’t want to be the guy who’s not playing well because you’re pouting, take it from me.''