The departure of star second baseman Robinson Cano to the Seattle Mariners in December 2013 left the Yankees with a big void. In their system since 2001, Cano developed into an All-Star and one of the best players in the league. The Yankees did not know who would play second, and since the start of the 2014 season they have gotten very little value from the position.
This weekend, however, might have been the introduction of a new homegrown second base talent: Rob Refsnyder. The 24-year-old debuted this past weekend against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, giving Yankee fans hope that one of the most exciting prospects in recent Yankee memory might be the second base answer they are looking for.
After going hitless in three at-bats Saturday, Refsnyder got his first career hit in the seventh inning on Sunday, lining a single over the head of Red Sox second baseman Brock Holt. Then in the top of the ninth, he hit a two-run home run off pitcher Alexi Ogando that went into the seats above the Green Monster, putting the Yankees up 8-4. Although he made one of two Yankee errors in the bottom of the ninth that lead to two unearned runs, it was an exciting two games for the rookie.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, on March 26, 1991, Refsnyder was adopted by Clint and Jane Refsnyder and taken to California. His older sister Elizabeth was also adopted from South Korea. He grew up playing baseball, basketball and football, but he chose to pursue baseball in college and played at Arizona.
A rising star with the Wildcats, he joined the Yankees in 2012. In the midst of his junior season, he was drafted in the fifth round of the MLB Draft with the 187th pick while in the middle of the College World Series. He went on to lead Arizona to its fourth title in school history and won the Most Outstanding Player award after hitting .476 with two home runs and five RBIs.
He then joined the Yankees Single-A minor league team the Charleston River Dogs, appearing in 46 games, hitting .241 with an OPS of .683, four home runs and 22 RBIs. In 2013 he showed improvement, initially starting with Charleston but then moving up to the High-A Tampa Bay Yankees where he hit .283 with an .812 OPS, six home runs and 51 RBIs. Despite the improvement, his name was still not that well known to Yankee fans. Before the beginning of the 2014 season, he was only ranked the 29th best prospect in the Yankees’ system, according to Baseball America.
The 2014 season was where it all changed for Refsnyder, though. He started in Double-A with the Trenton Thunder, and he hit extremely well, batting .342 with a .933 OPS, six home runs and 30 RBI. This prompted the Yankees to promote him to the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders after 60 games, and this sudden rise did not go unnoticed by fans.
Refsnyder’s success was exacerbated by the fact that trying to replace Robinson Cano had not gone well. Prior to the season the Yankees had signed former Baltimore Oriole Brian Roberts to play the position, but he had only played in 192 games over the past four seasons because of a host of injuries. Although he played 91 games for the Yankees at second, the signing was deemed a failure when the Yankees designated him for assignment on August 1. He hit .237 in those 91 games, with a .659 OPS and 21 RBI.
There were also seven other players who got a turn at second for the Yankees throughout the season, including two players they acquired at the trade deadline: Stephen Drew from the Red Sox and Martin Prado from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Drew played 34 games at second and 12 at shortstop, but he did not hit well. His average was only .150 with a .490 OPS, three home runs, 15 RBIs, and he accumulated -0.6 wins above replacement. Prado fared much better, hitting seven homers, 16 RBI and accumulating 2.1 WAR, and he played 17 games at second and 11 at third.
Refsnyder’s success in the minors combined with a rotation of underperforming second baseman led the New York Daily News to call him “the breakout player in the ballclub’s minor league system” last July. However, this still was not enough for the Yankees to think he was ready. In the same article, Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman said, “I’m not presently looking to call him up, but he’s demanding that we pay attention.”
And so everyone continued to pay attention through the offseason when no one knew who would play second. Refsnyder shot through the Yankee ranks and was named the seventh best prospect in the Yankees organization going into 2015 by Baseball America, jumping 22 spots in a year. He joined the team in spring training and hit well with a .364 average, six doubles and seven RBIs, but the team still decided he was not ready and said Drew would be the starting second baseman.
The biggest issue for Refsnyder was his defense. He actually mostly played right field at Arizona but was moved to second when the Yankees drafted him, and thus he had a lot of defensive work that he needed time to improve on to be able to play second in the majors. After spring training ended, Cashman said, “I think he’s had a tremendous camp, but (he’s had) maybe 240 games at second base so far. He just needs to finish off some more defense. … He’s got some work to do on the defensive side,” according to ESPN.
Thus he had to start the season down in Triple-A, but he continued to hit well with a .290 average, seven home runs, 37 RBIs, 10 stolen bases and 17 doubles in 81 games. Although he made 13 errors, seven of them were in the first 14 games, so he has shown some defensive improvement.
Fans had still continued to ask for the team to call him up prior to this weekend because the struggles at second for Drew and others have continued from last year. Overall, through the first 88 games of the season, Yankee second baseman are 29th in the league with -2.4 WAR, last in average at .190 and 24th in OPS at .610. Many see Refsnyder as the answer to these struggles.
After the game on Sunday, Manager Joe Girardi said he thought Refsnyder “played well” according to ESPN, but the question remains of whether he will only get those two games or remain with the team to see if he is really ready. According to a report by the New York Daily News, it appears that he will get the shot to prove himself after the season resumes Friday against the Seattle Mariners.
If the reports are true, it is possible he will take over the starting second base job, and if he shows the type of hitting ability he has displayed in the minors, the Yankees could be looking at their second baseman of the future.