New York Yankees: 5 Under-the-Radar Players to Watch in Spring Games

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 1, 2017

New York Yankees: 5 Under-the-Radar Players to Watch in Spring Games

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    Don't forget about Rob Refsnyder.
    Don't forget about Rob Refsnyder.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The New York Yankees are going with a different look this spring, but nobody can accuse them of dabbling in anonymity. They have plenty of brand-name veterans and brand-name prospects.

    It's tough for under-the-radar guys to stand out in such an environment. So let's do them a solid.

    We're going to look at five players in the Yankees' major league camp who don't have the most recognizable names but are worth monitoring in games as potential 2017 contributors. These are guys who:

    • Are not projected starters.
    • Are not presumed favorites to win assorted position battles.
    • Are not among the club's top 10 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America.
    • Are either on the 40-man roster or in camp as non-roster invitees.

    Although he didn't make the cut for this list, third base prospect Miguel Andujar is deserving of a shoutout. He needs time to smooth out the rough edges in his game, but he's a talent the Yankees are rightfully high on as a long-term answer.

    Now, then. On to the five players who did make the cut.

Jordan Montgomery, LHP

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    The Yankees have Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda at the top of their starting rotation. After them, it'll be two winners from a spring training battle royale between Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell and Adam Warren.

    Jordan Montgomery, who's in camp as a non-roster invitee, isn't likely to pull an upset over any of those guys. But at the least, he can put himself on the big club's radar for a call-up sometime in 2017.

    The left-hander joined the Yankees as a fourth-round draft pick in 2014 and has already advanced as far as Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He's put up some solid numbers along the way, including a 2.61 ERA and 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

    Compared to Justus Sheffield, James Kaprielian and Chance Adams, Montgomery doesn't have the most upside among the arms in the club's system. In a related note, he doesn't feature eye-popping stuff.

    Yet, there's a reason he earned a special mention from Adam Hayes of Baseball Prospectus. The 6'6" Montgomery is an imposing figure on the mound, and he comes at hitters from straight over the top. That's an unusual angle for a left-hander, and it adds some depth to the 24-year-old's stuff.

    As evidenced by his rate of 2.7 walks per nine innings in the minors, Montgomery's unusual delivery doesn't bar him from throwing strikes. He could emerge as a nice, dependable starter as soon as this season.

Ben Heller, RHP

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    Adam Hunger/Getty Images

    Whoever doesn't make it into the back of the Yankees rotation can rest easy knowing one thing: there's also space available in the club's bullpen.

    That's tough news for the hopefuls who are trying to get directly into the Yankees pen. Included among them is right-hander Ben Heller.

    If the name rings a bell, it could be because of the 6.43 ERA he put up in 10 major league appearances last year. Or it could be because he was involved in last year's Andrew Miller trade, which brought back two top prospects (Sheffield and Clint Frazier) to New York.

    But Heller, who's on the Yankees' 40-man roster, was no mere throw-in to that deal. He owns a 2.72 ERA and an 11.7 K/9 in 156 minor league appearances, all but one of which came in relief. He's a big guy at 6'3" and 205 pounds, and he has a big arm to boot.

    Adam McInturff of Baseball Prospectus rated Heller's heater as a 70 on the 20-80 scale, noting it sits at 96-97 miles per hour. He can go higher than that, even reaching 100 here and there.

    The catch is that Heller has a delivery that doesn't make it easy for him to throw strikes. But with a hard fastball and a slider that's a solid enough complement for it, he has the stuff profile that tends to help relievers get away with subpar command. 

    In short, he's ready to help. If not now, then soon.

Jonathan Holder, RHP

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Elsewhere among the long-shot hopefuls for the Yankees bullpen is Jonathan Holder, who's also on the 40-man roster.

    Holder was mostly used as a starter in his first two pro seasons after the Yankees chose him in the sixth round in 2014. He made the leap to the bullpen last year, and gaudy numbers ensued.

    Holder logged 65.1 innings in 42 appearances across three levels, and he struck out 101 while walking only seven. One effort in August saw him strike out the first 11 batters he faced.

    With an average of 93.0 mph on his fastball in eight major league appearances at the end of the year, Holder doesn't throw that hard relative to other relievers. He favors a different approach.

    "Ever since college, my approach has been that you can't get outs by throwing balls," the right-hander told’s Michael Leboff. "I've always been a guy that likes to pound the zone and trust the defense behind me. Getting swings and misses is a plus, but letting hitters get themselves out is my game plan."

    Velocity or not, the swings and misses don't come from nowhere. Holder's pitches, which notably include a cutter and curveball, averaged of 2,504 revolutions per minute in the majors last year. That was one of the highest marks of any Yankees pitcher.

    It's not hard to imagine Holder as a unique relief weapon: a pitcher who can go more than three outs at a time and dominate while doing so.

Kyle Higashioka, C

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    At the top of the Yankees' catching depth chart, there's Rookie of the Year runner-up Gary Sanchez. Nobody is unseating him. Call it a hunch.

    There's an interesting competition going on between the club's other two 40-man catchers for the backup role, however. In one corner is Austin Romine, who has MLB experience. In the other is Kyle Higashioka, who suddenly looks like a prospect.

    The Yankees took Higashioka in the seventh round back in 2008. He's since spent most of his time in the minors not hitting, and he now finds himself going into his age-27 season. Ordinarily, this isn't a good look.

    Last year changed things. Higashioka put up an .847 OPS and hit 21 homers, by far a career high. This was the result of him changing his swing mechanics for better timing and to get under more balls.

    "I've always tried to be a line-drive hitter predominantly," he told Brendan Kuty of "But when I do get under it just that little bit and I square it up in the air, it ends up going out rather than going up in the air and not going anywhere."

    Last season also saw Higashioka produce strong framing numbers. Combined with his decent arm, his defensive profile isn't too shabby either.

    If he was any younger, the Yankees would probably prefer to keep Higashioka in the minors so he could get regular playing time. But at his age, they could see him as a backup with more upside than Romine.

Rob Refsnyder, UTIL

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    Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images

    Remember Rob Refsnyder?

    It's understandable if the name has faded from your memory banks. Although he was being talked up a couple years ago, he hasn't done enough in 74 major league games to keep the attention. He's still on the Yankees' 40-man roster but isn't presently cut out for a role on the big club.

    "I don’t know where I fit on the roster," Refsnyder told Dan Martin of the New York Post.

    It's possible the door hasn't closed on Refsnyder just yet, though. The 25-year-old can offer the Yankees versatility after transitioning from a full-time second base role into a utility role last year. After getting comfortable with that, he now knows he must get his bat back on track.

    "I was learning a bunch of new positions last year, so I focused a lot more on hitting this offseason," he added. "I felt like I haven't been focusing on offense as much as should have."

    Easy for him to say, to be sure. But despite what his .686 OPS in the majors would indicate, Refsnyder's bat isn't bad by nature. He's a .293 career hitter in the minors, and he just hit .316 at Triple-A last year.

    Ronald Torreyes looks like the favorite to break camp as the Yankees' utility infielder. With a strong enough spring, Refsnyder may be able to change that plan.


    Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.

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