Since the departure of Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners, the New York Yankees have struggled to fill the hole left at second base. They’ve since tried to patch things together with career minor leaguers and veterans like of Dean Anna, Scott Sizemore, Jose Pirela, Brendan Ryan, Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew. Most recently, before the end of the 2015 season, the Yankees acquired Dustin Ackley from the Mariners with the intention for him to platoon between second and the outfield in 2016. During each respective player’s tenure with the New York between the start of 2014 to the end of the 2015 season, these seven players ‘slugged’ their way to an abysmal 306-for-1439 for a combined .212 batting average.
The Yankees realize there’s no need to fill this hole with a perennial All-Star. Yet, they’ve felt the pressure this offseason to significantly upgrade the keystone — a position which has become much more offensively relevant in the AL East than in recent memory. The temptation to look externally to resolve this vacancy has only been exacerbated by the depth of 2B talent on the free-agent market this winter, as well as the plethora of movable pieces around the league.
Despite the temptations to make a move, however, it would be awfully risky for New York to waste their most valuable trade assets on obtaining a temporary fit when there are greater needs at hand. Whether it be through available finances or acquisition, their focus should remain on acquiring controllable starting pitching depth that compliments their present staff with high K% and GB% paired with low BB%. But before they can do so, they must look internally and ask whether they can trust the 24 year-old Rob Refsnyder to produce under the bright New York City lights.
Historically, the Yankees have struggled to allow their home-grown products to get regular playing time in the Major Leagues — often opting instead to sign or trade for the established veteran. Nevertheless, there’s new Steinbrenner leadership in place who have shown a greater willingness and patience for their youth to ride the bumps of acclimating to the Major League level. So while the acquisition of Ackley provides an adequate safety net offensively as well as defensively, it should be Refsnyder’s turn to claim what’s rightfully his, and for the Yankees to give him that full opportunity.
Drafted as a right fielder out of the University of Arizona, Robert Refsnyder was taken in the fifth round, with the 187th overall selection in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft. Since that time, ‘Ref’ has provided a jumpstart to every lineup at every level, obtaining a wRC+ that’s hovered around 150 while scoring a combined 224 times between all four levels of minor league play. Slashing .370/.452/.481 in his first full-season taste of pro ball, he continued that success in the following season at Double-A Trenton, where he stroked .342/.385/.548. Then, he finished up a stellar 2014 campaign with a robust .300/.389/.456 in Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Berre. Between that time, he managed to keep his K% around 16%, while simultaneously walking at a rate of approximately 8% — for an aggressive, contact-minded hitter, these are excellent rates, especially given that his .291 career BABIP is in line with his career .296 batting average.
Equipped with an extremely compact stroke that allows him to make consistent, hard contact to all fields, Refsnyder has made it clear time and time again that he can hit a big-league heater. And given that he’ll likely hit in the bottom third of this Yankee order, he’ll see plenty of fastballs early in counts, which should bode quite well in his favor. Additionally, given this advanced, line-drive approach he takes to early count fastballs, many scouts feel he could one day develop 15-20 home run pop to pair with plenty of doubles. His ability to drive balls to all fields in the future will depend on his ability to sustain recognizing good pitches to hit early into counts, shortening his swing with two strikes, and controlling the strike zone.
Already a proven early-count hitter, one of the biggest adjustments Refsnyder made before getting the call to the big league club was the ability to scrap out hits deep into AB’s, which led to an excellent .290/.387/.413 through July of 2015. In fact, 2015 was the first year in his pro career that his Batting Average Behind in the Count (.306) was greater than his Batting Average ahead in Counts (.255).
The only remaining question mark in Refsnyder’s play is his glove. Transitioning from the outfield to second base hasn’t been an easy leap for him to make. Early on in his pro career, he struggled mightily with his lateral footwork working through the baseball, but his solid hand actions and average arm have allowed him to make up for some of the shortcomings in this department. At the start of the 2015 season, he gave the Yanks a scare when he made 13 errors in less than 6 weeks, however, he made the compulsory mental adjustments — a testament to the high level of maturity, quality make-up, and advanced mental approach he takes to every game.
Once he’d reached that threshold, the Yanks had seen enough; Stephen Drew’s miserable offensive woes compounded by Refsnyder’s continued defensive development and potent offensive play in Triple-A forced New York to give him the call on July 11. Up to that point in time, through 2639.1 minor league innings, Refsnyder had posted an underwhelming .978 fielding percent with 536 putouts, 763 assists, and 170 double plays while committing 50 total errors. Nevertheless, his recent defensive strides coupled with his ability to make the routine, leave few to believe that he cannot provide at least adequate defense at the Major League level. He needs to continue to improve on his lateral range and double play feeds, but when paired with the slick fielding, rifle-armed Gregorius at short, they should make for an excellent double-play combo up the middle.
The last piece of this Refsnyder analytics puzzle comes down to what we cannot measure. Refsnyder’s formidable make-up, high Baseball IQ, strong work ethic and plus mental approach he takes to every time make him a strong candidate for a starting job under the infamous façade and bright lights of Yankee Stadium. Assuming the Yankees actually give him the opportunity win the starting second base job out of Spring Training, expect Refsnyder to be a fixture atop the Yankee order for years to come.