It's no mystery why the fans loved Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano so much during their Yankees tenures. For the majority of the franchise's history, their positions were filled by forgettable names like Jim Mason and Horace Clarke, and only occasionally did other terrific guys such as Phil Rizzuto or Willie Randolph come along. The transition from the prime Yankee days of Jeter and Cano to now has been a rough one, a disastrous fever dream that involved way too much late-career Jeter, Brian Roberts, Eduardo Nunez, and Stephen Drew. With both Drew and Didi Gregorius hitting well below league average at a 56 and 61 wRC+ apiece, many Yankees fans have been looking toward the future up the middle for quite awhile.
At Triple-A Scranton, the star of the show is obviously second baseman Rob Refsnyder. The fifth round pick of the 2012 Draft exploded last year, tearing up Double-A Trenton with a .342/.385/.548 triple slash before playing the second half with the RailRiders. To date, he has played 118 games in Scranton, notching a superb .291/.374/.430 batting line with 31 doubles and 10 homers. It's no surprise that scouts like his line drive bat, but Yankees fans should know the story with Refsnyder by now. A converted right fielder from college, Refsnyder only started to learn playing second professionally in 2013 and is still very raw at the position. There are understandably serious questions about whether or not the 24-year-old can play a passable second at the big league level, or if he will turn into a 2001-03 Alfonso Soriano disaster without nearly as much hitting potential to make up for it. Rather than make this post the 7 millionth referendum on Refsnyder vs. Stephen Drew though, it's better to move on.
It's a big jump to the next exciting middle infield prospect, all the way down to Low-A Charleston, where a mere 19-year-old is catching the eyes of scouts everywhere in the Sally League. In January 2012, the Yankees signed a speedy kid out of the Dominican Republic named Jorge Mateo for $250,000. The team worked hard to develop him as he played in the Dominican Summer League for a couple years, and then had a thrilling yet brief (due to a broken wrist sustained on a hit by pitch) 15-game stint with the Rookie Ball club last year. Now, Mateo is stateside and playing his first year of full-season ball, and it's hard not to get excited about him--Even in a system with a guy as talented as Aaron Judge, Mateo might have the best pure tools of anyone. He has an excellent arm with good range at shortstop, and he's a contact hitter who's not afraid to draw a walk.
But that's not what people talk about regarding Mateo. This is what makes eyes pop:
That is straight top-of-the-line 80 grade speed. If you want a laugh, watch at how easily Mateo scored on an inside-the-park homer the other day. Mateo leads not only the Sally League, but also all of Minor League Baseball in stolen bases right now with 33 in 41 games. The debate for his future will be if he can hit enough to survive in the majors or if he will struggle like fellow trailblazer Billy Hamilton, but regardless, he's about as exciting a player as there is in the system.
High-A Tampa has a couple infielders to track as well in 2013 fourth round pick Tyler Wade and another 2012 signee out of the Dominican Republic, Abiatal Avelino. The lefty hitting Wade has been sneaky good since he was drafted from Murrieta Valley High School in California. He was red-hot in the Gulf Coast League after getting drafted, and in 2014 proved that it was no mirage, as he hit .272/.350/.349 for Charleston with a 100 wRC+. FanGraphs analyst Kiley McDaniel wrote that Wade has the necessary skills to remain at shortstop, and now with the T-Yanks, he's done his part to ensure people still pay attention to him. He's hitting .317/.358/.398 with a 129 wRC+ in 40 games. At the pace he's going, it would not be a surprise to see him receive a mid-season call-up to Trenton at some point, especially with Cito Culver doing absolutely nothing (almost literally) to demonstrate that the Yankees need to bother giving him more at-bats.
Avelino has been a bit of a disappointment since coming beginning full-season ball with Charleston last year. He was so shaky with the bat (.232/.296./323 with a 76 wRC+) that Wade began to take more at-bats from him at shortstop since he was playing better. He rebounded in another 20-game stint in the Sally League at the start of 2015 before being bumped up to the T-Yanks, where he has mostly played second and struggled again early on with the level adjustment. There's plenty of potential still there, but I would certainly take Wade over him at this point.
There aren't too many other middle infielders to watch at this point, particularly with McDaniel's 25th ranked prospect Angel Aguilar spending more time at third base and off to a slow start with the RiverDogs. 2013 GCL All-Star Gosuke Katoh has practically fallen off the radar with such a poor time in Charleston that he was recently sent back to extended spring training. Everyone else is either an organizational player or among the numerous talented young teenagers the Yankees signed last July, like Wilkerman Garcia, Hyo-Joon Park, Yonauris Rodriguez, and Diego Castillo. Since middle infielders are always in demand and Mateo's really the only highly projectible standout, expect the Yankees to be as intrigued as ever by those prospects in the upcoming draft.