It’s scary to think about where the New York Yankees would be right now if not for the success of their rookie class.
All-Stars Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances have captured the headlines during the first half of the season by emerging as the best starter and reliever in the American League, respectively, and the team has also received notable contributions from less-famous young players such as Yangervis Solarte, John Ryan Murphy and Chase Whitley. However, rookies can only a carry a team so far.
The Yankees enter Thursday three games back of the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles with a 46-44 overall record, though their chances of reaching the postseason potentially took a crushing blow Wednesday with the news that Tanaka was headed to the disabled list with “elbow inflammation.”
The team also has scuffled offensively to begin the month, with a collective batting average of .248 over its last nine games as well as a .668 OPS that ranks 13th in the AL during that span.
Unfortunately, the Yankees don’t have a pitching prospect capable of replacing Tanaka in the rotation should he miss an extended period of time. They do, however, have a red-hot hitter in 23-year-old second baseman Robert Refsnyder chomping at the bit in Triple-A.
But is he capable of providing the Yankees with the offensive spark they desperately need?
The Yankees selected Refsnyder in the fifth round of the 2012 draft out of the University of Arizona, where he posted a .343/.409/.503 batting line over three seasons and was named Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series as a junior.
The Yankees challenged Refsnyder with an assignment to Low-A Charleston for his professional debut. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that he batted only .241/.319/.364 with 12 extra-base hits in 46 games.
Though he was an outfielder at Arizona, the Yankees drafted Refsnyder with a potential conversion to second base in mind—where his offensive profile would offer greater value—and ultimately decided to move him to the position prior to the 2013 season.
Despite having to learn a new position on the fly, things started to come together for Refsnyder last year, as he received a quick promotion to High-A Tampa in mid-April after a hot start back at Charleston.
Overall, it was an under-the-radar, breakout season for the then-22-year-old. In addition to flashing a promising hit tool and modest power by batting .293 with six home runs, 32 doubles and 57 RBI in 130 games between both levels, Refsnyder also showcased good speed with 23 stolen bases as well as an advanced approach that yielded more walks (84) than strikeouts (82).
Refsnyder's defense at the keystone was rough as expected, evidenced by 25 errors in 108 games, but he made steady progress over the course of the season and in turn significantly improved his projection at the position.
This year, Refsnyder hasn’t been able to fly under the radar as his eye-opening performance between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre has thrust him into the prospect spotlight.
The 23-year-old has been one of top hitters in the minor leagues this season, with a .335/.406/.549 batting line, 42 extra-base hits (11 home runs) and 43 RBI through 88 games. Since his promotion last month to Triple-A, Refsnyder has batted .320/.447/.550 with 12 extra-base hits and a 24-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 games.
So what’s behind his remarkable improvement at the plate this season?
According to Refsnyder, via John Harper of the New York Daily News, it’s the result of “a huge swing overhaul” recommended by Double-A hitting coach Marcus Thames. Said Refsnyder:
I was working underneath the ball. Marcus was pretty frank: he said, "This isn’t going to work." So we went back to the drawing board. He stood me up a little more upright, redid my posture at the plate, and that helped me get more direct to the baseball.
I think that really helped me on the inside pitch this year, and I think that’s why my power numbers have sparked a little bit. I’m able to get to some of the pitches I wasn’t able to last year.
Meanwhile, RailRiders hitting coach Butch Wynegar said Refsnyder has made a strong impression (via Harper):
Being around him for the first time, he’s impressed the hell out of me, I’ll tell you that.
Kevin Long called me about 10 days ago to ask me about him and I said, "Kev, you’re going to love this guy. He’s a smart hitter, he’s coachable, great makeup." Everything a coach or manager would want out of a player.
Refsnyder’s defense at second base this season also has been a revelation, as he’s committed only nine errors in 58 games between a pair of advanced levels. However, due the Yankees current needs on offense, there’s a chance he’ll see more playing time in the outfield during the second half.
According to general manager Brian Cashman (via Harper), "I’m not presently looking to call him up, but he’s demanding that we pay attention. If he came up here (in the coming weeks), it would likely be in the outfield."
Regardless of where Refsnyder ends up playing defensively, it seems more and more likely that he’ll receive a promotion to the major leagues during the second half of the season.
However, given the team’s recent struggles at the plate and the chance that they may be without Tanaka for more than a couple of weeks, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Yankees called up Refsnyder sooner rather than later.