Around the Horn: Yanks strong up the middle

Around the Horn: Yanks strong up the middle

With the start of Spring Training approaching, anticipation is building for the 2017 season. is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing this week with the middle-infield spots.

There was a historical performance in the middle of the diamond last year for the Yankees, where Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius accomplished something that bold-faced names from the past like Derek Jeter, Willie Randolph, Tony Lazzeri and Phil Rizzuto never could.

Castro (21) and Gregorius (20) both set career highs in home runs, becoming the first pair of Yanks middle infielders to hit at least 20 homers in the same season. They each drove in 70 runs, joining Robinson Cano (107 RBIs in 2013) as the only infielders to pace the team in RBIs over a full season.

"I'm just trying to hit line drives all over the place, like I'm doing always," Gregorius said. "If it turns into home runs, it turns into home runs. I'm not going up there trying to hit home runs. I'll work in the offseason on trying to make my swing a little bit shorter and try to stay consistent with it. That's all I'm trying to do."

Castro was acquired from the Cubs in December 2015 and hit it off quickly with Gregorius in the spring, as the two lockered next to each other and participated in a shot-for-shot remake of a clip from the 2008 comedy "Step Brothers." Their relationship jelled by Opening Day, with Castro adjusting nicely to second base after having played just 38 games there in '15.

After collecting eight RBIs through just three games, Castro's first season in pinstripes was streakier than he would have liked, as his best months came in April (.833 OPS) and August (.905 OPS). The Yankees correctly predicted that moving to Yankee Stadium would help; Castro hit .310 (91-for-294) with 15 homers in 78 games at home, compared to .230 (65-for-283) with six homers in 73 road games.

"I want to be the kind of player that always tries to learn," Castro said. "I'm always working hard to get better every year, and that's the type of team that I want -- to be better than last year."

Gregorius was a consistent performer throughout most of the schedule, leading the club with 54 extra-base hits, and he credited veteran Carlos Beltran for helping him with the mental aspect of the game.

Matchups against left-handed pitchers, once a concern for Gregorius, no longer were an issue as he hit .324 (48-for-148) off lefties, the third-highest average by a left-handed hitter in the Majors. Hitting coach Alan Cockrell believes the improvement was sustainable.

"I saw Didi's power last year even before that," Cockrell said. "I think he's always had bat speed and leverage, God-given. Last year, he was able to kind of shorten his swing and more efficiently get the barrel to where it needed to be, and he's always behind the baseball. He puts himself in a good position to hit, so I saw that coming before I think Didi saw it."

While Castro said that he will be open to taking grounders at third base if asked, the Yanks are counting on Castro and Gregorius to have another strong showing up the middle. Ronald Torreyes is in line to return as a backup for both players, while Rob Refsnyder projects to receive some reps at second base as he attempts to secure a spot on the Opening Day roster.

"People forget about Refsnyder because we have some other new names, but he's looking to push himself back in the mix, just like Tyler Austin did last year," general manager Brian Cashman said.

Down on the farm, the Yankees are even more excited. Gleyber Torres was named the youngest MVP of the Arizona Fall League after pacing the circuit in batting average (.403), on-base percentage (.513) and OPS (1.158). He is projected to open the season at Double-A Trenton.

"I learned a lot from that," Torres said through an interpreter. "Because of that, I think that's something that's going to help me in the upcoming season."

Jorge Mateo could play a role at second base or center field, having been moved off shortstop by Torres' arrival, but Tyler Wade is closer to the Majors. The 22-year-old played in the Arizona Fall League and should open the year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre while working on his versatility.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.