In a just world, Rob Refsnyder would be entering his third season as the New York Yankees’ starting second baseman this spring. Instead, he finds himself on the outside looking in despite back-to-back strong seasons at Triple-A, followed by an impressive MLB debut. At best, he is a long-shot candidate for the open fourth bench spot, only if the team feels comfortable with Starlin Castro as Chase Headley’s primary backup. The second base job should have been handed to Refsnyder in 2014 when it became clear that Brian Roberts, at 36, was no more than a shell of his former self. Yet, Joe Girardi trotted him out there and received replacement-level production for the first 91 games of the season. When Roberts finally was replaced, it was with Stephen Drew, who had a .150/.219/.271 slash in his 150 PAs with the Bombers that season. Meanwhile, Refsnyder compiled a .318/.387/.497 batting line split between the two highest levels of the Yankee system.
Instead of being cut loose at the end of the season, Drew was retained for 2015. Many pundits speculated that this signing was just as insurance in case the rookie stumbled in his transition to the big leagues. Refsnyder was never treated as a serious contender for the job that spring. The fact that he and Aaron Judge were assigned numbers 98 and 99 in camp tells you that they were still sitting at the kids’ table. Drew was anointed the starter in early March and Girardi never looked back. Even when it was decided that Drew needed a platoon partner, the team turned to Brendan Ryan, who had managed an eye-popping 13 wRC+ the year before. Yankees second basemen produced 1.9 wins below average in 2015 according to Baseball Reference, ranking third from the bottom of the American League. Astoundingly, despite hitting below the Mendoza Line for much of the season, Drew held onto his job for 131 games. He really only lost it because of a concussion that sidelined him in September.
Refsnyder was once again solid in Triple-A, compiling a 123 wRC+ in 522 PAs before his September call-up. After joining the big league team in the last month of the season, he had exactly one plate appearance in his first two weeks in New York. Combined with his abrupt demotion after four solid games in the Bronx before the All-Star break, it was becoming clear that the team’s decision makers weren’t Ref’s biggest fans.
When Drew hit the DL, the team had no choice but to hand him the job. He responded by hitting .359/.412/.548 (159 wRC+) in his final 34 PAs. While he’s clearly still a slightly below average fielder at this point, he only made one error in his 106 MLB innings in 2015. With only three full seasons as a second baseman under his belt, a few hiccups are to be expected, but he is certainly playable because of his consistent offensive production. The fact that he started New York’s only playoff game was a major victory for his fans. It certainly looked like he would finally be given a chance to earn a starting job going into 2016.
When the Yanks traded perhaps their most versatile and reliable pitcher, Adam Warren, to acquire Starlin Castro, who has posted an 89 wRC+ and accumulated just 3.6 fWAR the past three years. He’s been one of the worst shortstops in the league in that period. If you remove his strong 2014 campaign, things look even uglier.
That said, Castro has undeniable upside and looked like a different player after switching to second base down the stretch for the Chicago Cubs. In a vacuum, I don’t hate the move for the Yankees. The fact that the team already had a younger, cheaper alternative on the roster who is projected by Steamer600 to be the better player in 2016 is what makes the move hard to swallow.
Refsnyder is projected to be a league average starter at second (2.1 WAR and 104 wRC+), while Castro is expected to fall short of that (1.3 WAR and 90 wRC+). I’d rather have Refsnyder, Warren, and $40 million to spend than Castro in the Bronx and Ref wasting another season in Scranton Wilkes-Barre. That said, what’s done is done, and the Yankees need to figure out how best to utilize Rob Refsnyder going forward.
One possibility is as a trade chip. He was listed among New York’s top 10 prospects by Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus this winter. He’s not a top 100 prospect, but he’s on the fringes. You could make the case he’s a top 200 prospect in MLB at this point given his big league readiness. Former Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler has taken the reins for the Angels, so it’s just a matter of time before he targets one of his old players. They need to beef up their infield and have some semi-interesting young starters. There may be a match there at some point. Leaving Refsnyder in Triple-A is the most likely option, but also the most unattractive. He has a .282/.370/.423 slash in 858 International League PAs. He’s proven everything he needs to in the minors.
That leaves making Rob Refsnyder into a useful bench player. He was a corner outfielder in college and has said he’s open to a position switch this spring. He’s a guy who should get some reps at first following Greg Bird’s season-ending injury. If New York was willing, they could turn him into a better-hitting version of Dustin Ackley. He doesn’t have the range for shortstop or the arm for third, but the ability to play first, second, left, and right would give him enough flexibility to be a useful bench option.
For what it’s worth, it sounds like the team wants him to focus on his defense at second base, so this idea likely has no legs. If he’s going to make the bench this season, it will be because Starlin Castro will act as the team’s backup at shortstop and third base. The downside to that is Castro is even newer to the position than Refsnyder, and the Yankees would presumably like him to get as much time at the keystone as possible. If Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley, or Castro hit the DL for an extended period, that will likely be the only way Rob Refsnyder sees significant major league at-bats in 2016.