Ever since he was drafted, Rob Refsnyder has searched for his niche. It turns out, he has several.
By Hilary Giorgi
Yankees Magazine |
The temperature is creeping toward 100 degrees, and Rob Refsnyder is sitting in the Yankees dugout dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, drinking … a hot coffee. Granted, it's cooler in the dugout than on the field, but still, a hot coffee on a sweltering July day?
"Now, I'm ready," he said after the first sip.
It's perhaps an odd sight, but not an odd statement coming from the 25-year-old.
Over the course of his five years in professional baseball, Refsnyder has proven that he is ready for just about anything that comes his way, all in pursuit of fulfilling his Major League dream.
In 2015, two years after Refsnyder shifted from right field to second base at the Yankees' request, his role in the club's infield was seemingly clear. In the most important contest of the season -- the Yankees' Wild Card Game against the Astros -- the then-24-year-old got the start at second, leading many to believe that he was the heir apparent to the position for the 2016 season. But things changed. All-Star Starlin Castro was brought in to play second base, and, for a while at least, Refsnyder seemed like a man without a role to play.
The Yankees put Refsnyder at third during Spring Training in 2016, and he hoped to earn a spot on the roster from the hot corner, but he ultimately began his season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. There, he saw time at second, at third and in right field, and he was left wondering if another Big League opportunity would come his way.
Manager Joe Girardi turned to Refsnyder with a proposition -- and a new position. Having seen the 25-year-old's work ethic and athleticism -- and knowing that his bat had been Major League ready for some time -- Girardi asked Refsnyder to try his hand at first, a position he had never played before in his life.
As ever, Refsnyder was ready for the challenge. On June 3, he made his debut at first, and he has seen his name at that position on the Yankees lineup card more and more often since. But he has also played in right and left field and at second and third base, becoming something of an uber-utilityman.
On any given day, he has no idea where he will be, what glove he will need, where he might be batting in the lineup, or if he'll be in the lineup at all. And that's fine, because after nearly four years, and at least as many position changes, Rob Refsnyder has finally found a role on the Big League club: a man at the ready.
Getting to the Show
Here's the truth: Growing up, no kid dreams of being a utilityman. Usually, the dream is to play one position, play it well enough to make it to the Majors, and then become a star. The dream is to win the World Series -- and maybe hit the big home run that clinches it, too.
That was Refsnyder's dream. That still is his dream.
"I want to win a World Series," he said. "I want to be a part of that -- and be an important part of that."
So maybe being the Yankees' swingman isn't the exact dream, but it's still a step toward realizing the ultimate goal.
On a baseball roster, there is no unimportant role. In fact, it can be argued that the versatility Refsnyder offers is actually the most important part he could play.
"When you can swing the bat the way he's capable of, and then when he's able to go play first, second, third, it makes him a more valuable player," said Joe Espada, the Yankees' third base and infield coach. "It's very hard to find players like him. You look at Major League rosters nowadays and those players, there are very few of them out there."
"One of the most important things he adds to the team is a lot of versatility," said outfielder Brett Gardner. "He can play all over the field, and that's the kind of guy that Joe Girardi loves because it makes his job easier. He's able to put Ref in the outfield, over at first base, wherever. … I'm glad that he's here, and I feel like not only can he contribute, but he can really make a difference and help us win ballgames."
Through mid-September, Refsnyder had hit .269, but he was terrific in the highest-pressure situations. With two outs, the right-handed hitter had a .326 average and a .420 on-base percentage, and with two outs and runners in scoring position, he was batting .313.
Those are stats any team would envy, and Refsnyder's teammates are perfectly aware of how valuable he has been. Forgive them, then, for the fact that they now want more.
"I think he's going to turn into a really good hitter," said first baseman Mark Teixeira, who retired at the end of the 2016 season, his eighth with the Yankees. "He's got gap power, he really has a good idea of what he's doing at the plate, and he doesn't swing at a lot of bad pitches."
Praise came from all over the Yankees clubhouse, but no one was happier for Refsnyder than catcher Austin Romine, who played with the Californian in Triple-A and knows firsthand how hard it is to make it to The Show.
"[The Yankees] are a tough organization to come up with," said Romine, who spent most of the last decade in the Minors before making his first Opening Day roster this year. "Everything has to go right, the timing has to be good, and it's rare when all of that aligns."
For decades, the Yankees made a business of acquiring the best talent on the free-agent or trade market to fill out their roster -- and won a handful of championships that way. With a few notable exceptions, rather than letting their prospects grow in the Majors, the Yankees used them as trade chips to help bring in proven stars. It's a strategy that may be changing now, but Refsnyder's future was very much in doubt before he got a shot this year.
It would be easy to get discouraged, Refsnyder acknowledges. And it's understandable, especially taking into consideration that his lateral moves around the diamond are in addition to some downward ones that sent him back to the Minors as recently as the beginning of August, before he returned to New York in September. But disenchantment is not a look Refsnyder's willing to rock.
"I think it's kind of easy to complain, and feel sorry for yourself, or not work hard," Refsnyder said. "But in the end, that's only doing an injustice to yourself and your organization. I think younger players can kind of get selfish, and they start to think about themselves. But really, for me, you just have to go about your business, and work and try to stay at an even keel. If you do, I think an opportunity will present itself, for sure.
"First base was never even close to my radar," he continued. "It was surprising at first, to be honest. But you have to embrace it and do your best at it."
So off to first he went with a glove he borrowed from Ackley and a hard-working nature, once more trying to earn those pinstripes and find a way to make his impact last.
Put on the coffee.
Whatever It Takes
Although Refsnyder's future is uncertain -- Tyler Austin was called up in mid-August and saw the majority of his time at first while Greg Bird, recovering from shoulder surgery, is on schedule to return in the spring -- his goal for right now is only to do his best at the job at hand, which means learning to play everywhere.
When asked how easy it is to switch positions, Espada offers a chuckle.
"It's not easy. At all," said the third base and infield coach.
But with a guy like Refsnyder -- whose knowledge of the game is described as "off the charts" by just about everyone in the clubhouse -- the task is definitely easier to bear.
The process by which a player -- even one as skilled as Refsnyder -- learns a new position is long and repetitive. It happens on the field before almost every game, in the thousands of ground balls, hours of footwork drills and constant refrains from coaches and teammates about the relevant fundamentals.
The drills help, but there's no teacher quite like experience. In Refsnyder's first 25 games at first, for example, he recorded 166 putouts and five assists in 174 chances, committing three errors. For comparison's sake, the last time Teixeira won a Gold Glove Award, in 2012, he committed just one error in 119 games at the position.
Refsnyder realizes that first base is a work in progress, and he finds solace in knowing that the process is difficult even for the most skilled players.
"Mark told me that he didn't master first base for a whole year," Refsnyder said. "He didn't feel super comfortable even a year into it. That gives me extra confidence and motivation."
"It's not a hard position to play, but it's a hard position to play well," Teixeira said. "It's one of those positions where if you have a bad first baseman, it makes your entire infield bad. So to be a good first baseman, you have to have good footwork, and you have to be a target your other infielders really enjoy throwing to."
So on days he sees his name in the lineup, Refsnyder simply grabs one of his new mitts and gets into game mode. But even on the days his name is absent from the lineup card tacked on the corkboard of the clubhouse door, the work can't stop.
"We first see if he's playing or not that day, and if he's not, we'll go out early and do a little bit of work," Espada said. "My focus with him is more on quality instead of quantity. We go out there and we work on the fundamentals and the basics -- things he can be reminded of so that he can be successful on the field."
His infield work is done at first, second and third, and he gives attention to the outfield, as well.
"I'm just trying to keep focused on my fundamentals -- staying low, make good reads, get good hops," Refsnyder explained. "So I try to do that with Joe [Espada] early, and then I take some grounders at first and second. … Then during batting practice, I try to go to the outfield and get some balls in left field and right field, so I can stay fresh that way."
That's the key. Preparation is one of the only things Refsnyder can control. Where he plays and when is up to his manager. When his time comes, all that's left for him to do is prove he can make a difference in the Yankees' quest for World Series championship No. 28.
When Opportunity Knocks
As August dawned, the Yankees showed a new, almost unprecedented commitment to their future. With four trades prior to the trade deadline on Aug. 1, the team brought in a dozen prospects, turning a farm system that was considered middle-tier into one of the best in Major League Baseball.
But along with the gains, the team also lost Carlos Beltran, who had played 62 games in right field for the Yankees this season. In his absence, Refsnyder's baseball journey came somewhat full circle.
Following the trade, Refsnyder returned to his original position and played three straight games in right, before returning to first for a start on Aug. 4. After his September return, he primarily remained an outfielder, with more time in right field as he filled in for an injured Aaron Judge.
"We talked about how he might have found a really nice niche of being a part-time first baseman and a part-time outfielder," Teixeira said. "That serves a big purpose on teams. You need to be a little bit versatile in today's game. I think he plays an above-average outfield, and I think he's going to be able to play an above-average first base."
Refsnyder says that he is still most comfortable in right field -- in his 25 years, that's where he has seen the most time -- but with each day that passes, and each game he plays at one of his other positions, his confidence grows. And the impact that has had on his teammates has been huge.
"He's doing well, he's come a long way, and it's giving him confidence," Romine said. "The one thing you can do is let them know that when you do play, you're going to get the job done. I think he's done that, and he's done that tenfold."
In other words, seize every chance that presents itself.
When the Yankees first drafted Refsnyder our of the University of Arizona, they gave him the opportunity to move to second base and he took it. Then, they gave him an opportunity to try his hand at third; he took it. And when the phone rang with an opportunity at first, of course, he took it. And what's more, he has excelled every step along the way by accepting that reaching the final destination -- hopefully clutching a World Series trophy -- will make the sacrifices, extra work and new sets of challenges worth it.
With each opportunity, Refsnyder grabbed his coffee and said he was ready.
"I've always considered myself a team guy, so I'm just trying to put myself in the best position possible and just try to be on the field as much as possible," he said. "If that's at one position, that's great; if it's at multiple positions, great. We'll just have to see how it unfolds. But I just have to stay ready and make the most of every opportunity that's given."
That might add up to a lot of cups of coffee, but it's okay -- he's up for it.
Hilary Giorgi is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.