Stephen Drew will almost certainly be the starting second baseman on opening day, health permitting of course. The decision to bring him back was not universally popular with the fanbase, after a 2014 that would be kindly referred to as a season-long struggle, the second half of which was spent in a Yankee uniform. Even Brian Cashman admitted that the move was at least partly an educated gamble.
"We’re betting on the fact that last year has to be some sort of aberration; why would he all of a sudden fall off a cliff?""We put $5 million on the table and gambled that way. We hope it pays off."
Not the most inspiring of quotes, but then such is the way of bargain shopping in the middle infield. Unfortunately, Robinson Cano is part of franchise past, and the Yankees are hoping that the present situation, year two of replacing a Hall of Famer, is better than year one. There is hope on the horizon though, that the Yankees won't have to keep dredging for the least unappealing veteran at the position.
Rob Refsnyder tore through minor league pitching last season, both at Double-A and Triple-A, and on arrival at spring camp continued to hit. For a fanbase starved of elite position player talent rising through in recent years, the meteoric rise of Refsnyder to the cusp of the big leagues is an easy tale to root for. Especially when low expectations for 2015 contention is juxtaposed with hopes for a brighter tomorrow when hitters with even higher ceilings in Aaron Judge and Greg Bird might push their way up to the Bronx to join Refsnyder at the core of the Yankee lineup.
Refsnyder's bat might be major league ready, or at least, there might not be much left for him to prove against minor league pitching. However, he will be sent to Triple-A for regular playing time, primarily to work on his fielding. A converted right fielder, he was expected to need further work defensively heading into spring. Along with fellow prospect Jose Pirela, Refsnyder's time at camp confirmed that while the bat might be ready for the big leagues, the glove likely isn't. Certainly not in the eyes of Cashman, in any case.
"But I think also that those guys have shown they still have work to do on the defensive side still. It doesn’t mean if we have to go there we wouldn’t be comfortable doing so. I also think they’ve shown they have some development still to go, despite the bats."
Cashman continues on, to say that he's happy to have Drew available at the major league level, so he doesn't have to rush his minor leaguers to the Bronx before they are ready, defensively as well as offensively.
"The bats are impressive, but you’ve seen the defensive stuff they’ve shown us in short sample sizes as well. So, like anything else, you’d love to pluck a guy from the minor leagues when they’re on a roll in all aspects of the game so they can kind of hit the ground running at the big-league level. So right now I’m pretty comfortable that Drew signing was the smart play for us on the front end."
It would be easy to dismiss this as General Manager speak, particularly as there was never any likelihood that Drew wasn't going to be given first crack at the major league job however Refsnyder performed defensively. There is certainly a lot to be said about putting a minor league player in a stronger position to make a successful transition to the majors, though. When Refsnyder is eventually brought up, he'll have a hard enough job trying to adapt to hitting major league pitching. Letting him take a few more defensive reps, or more than a few as needs be, at Scranton towards building a little more confidence when fielding his position may not be such a bad idea. After all, learning to play defense at the major league level is hard for rookies, even those that are natural at the position. This quote from Daniel Nava of the Boston Red Sox is particularly revealing.
"Every run matters. In the minors, it’s obviously more development. When you get up here, there’s no more development. You’ve got to win now. There’s a lot more pressure on you. If there’s a guy who’s not in his natural position, not only are you uncomfortable, but you have the feeling of knowing that there’s a lot on the line and making a mistake isn’t as acceptable as if you’re in the minors and you’re trying something new."
Nava is one player, with one perspective, but the article above includes quotes from their manager John Farrell and infield instructor Brian Butterfield, as well as our own Stephen Drew. Having to adapt to responsibilities associated with defensive shifts is only part of the story, as rookie fielders have to adapt to the speed of the ball coming off major league bats, as well as the pressure and effort involved with preparing for each game defensively. It's a lot to throw at a young player, particularly a young second baseman who two years ago was playing in right field.
Of course, eventually Refsnyder will need to make the transition. If he is given more time to sharpen the fundamentals of second base, though, he'll have less of a gap to bridge. Considering the expectations that the New York fanbase and media will likely place on him once he gets here, narrowing the gap he'll have to cross to go from being a prospect to an effective major leaguer might make all the difference in his development. It's not likely to hurt, in any case, considering Stephen Drew on a one-year, $5 million contract probably isn't going to be a long-term roadblock for Refsnyder once he is truly ready.
The question of continuing Refsnyder's development as a second baseman at a major league level during the 2015 season, especially in the first half of the year, might not have an obviously simple answer. Well, unless things go exceedingly well with Drew in the Bronx, or unfortunately poorly with Refsnyder's hitting in Scranton. It's the case where Drew is below-average to mediocre offensively, and Refsnyder keeps tearing it up in the minors, where this discussion will continue. In all likelihood, calls to promote Refsnyder and give him a shot will grow louder. After all, Cano was widely regarded as a mediocre fielder when he first broke through, and he grew into the all-around superstar he is today. The only thing with that is, perhaps we shouldn't start judging Refsnyder by the standards of the future Hall of Famer who held down this job a year ago. He'll have enough of that to live up to once he is up here. Not every second base prospect with strong hitting credentials but a questionable glove will turn into Robinson Cano when thrown into the deep end.
Personally, I don't think Drew should block Refsnyder, but I don't think Drew struggling should lead to a rushed promotion either. The Yankees have to trust their scouts on this one, and once Refsnyder passes the eye test, at least to where he appears to be fielding the position with more confidence, then consider him for promotion. The Yankees don't need him to be Gold Glove caliber defender, just a credible one. For his sake almost as much as the defense as a whole.
Plus, it won't be the worst precedent to set with Refsnyder, making him earn his way up by improving defensively as well as offensively. This is hardly a Kris Bryant type delay of promotion, clearly directed at managing service time. Refsnyder has always been a hard worker by all accounts, even he might expect nothing less.