When Rob Refsnyder was optioned to Triple-A Sunday, the answer to who will be the Yankees' second reserve infielder on Opening Day got a bit clearer. A field that once included Refsnyder as the favorite along with non-roster invitees Donovan Solano and Deibinson Romero, is now down to Ronald Torreyes and Pete Kozma in a classic showdown of merit and upside vs. experience and lack of options.
Torreyes' path to the majors has been wayward. He's been passed around hot potato style by six different organizations since he signed with the Reds out of Venezuela at 17. He was traded from Cincinnati to Houston for two bonus pool slots in 2013 and despite making the Astros' organizational top-25 via Baseball America a year later, he got shipped to Toronto for cash considerations in 2015. Torreyes was a Blue Jay for all of 29 days before being swapped for cash once again, this time to the Dodgers. January 2016 marked a milestone when he was finally dealt for an actual human being - the Yankees' Rob Segedin. Three days later he was waived and claimed by the Angels, but before the month was out he was waived again and reclaimed by the New York in time for the start of camp.
Whew. Despite all that bouncing around Torreyes is only 23 and has managed some decent minor league numbers - a .298/.353/.409 triple slash along with 72 steals over 612 games, though the better parts of that came at lower levels. He's played more second throughout his career, but has experience at short and third where the Yankees would need him. He's looked fine at the hot corner this spring, even if his size and arm strength aren't typical for a left-side infielder.
Torreyes has hit well in Tampa. His .313 batting average is fourth among Yankees who have gotten 30 or more at bats. He's walked only once and has just two hits for extra bases, but if the Yankees take him north he's someone who should at least put the ball in play. He's never been viewed as much of a commodity, given how many clubs have sent him packing, but Torreyes could bloom into a decent MLB utility player like another enjoyably-named Venezuelan who turned heads at Yankee camp two years ago in Yangervis Solarte.
When the Yankees signed Kozma to a minor league contract back in December, a collective groan could be heard emanating from the New York area. Fans know too well that veteran presence plus strong defense is a binomial that usually equates to on the roster. The 27-year-old Kozma is a younger Brendan Ryan without the 80 mustache growing tool.
Kozma's arguably an even more anemic hitter. His only run of regular playing time came with St. Louis in 2013 when he put up a pitcher-like 49 wRC+ over 448 plate appearances. For a guy who doesn't hit the ball with much authority, he's had the nerve to strike out at a rate of over 20 percent for his career, and to hit roughly as many balls in the air as on the ground, so he's not even lucking into hits. This spring he's batting .200/.259/.280, which is pretty much par for the course. To his credit, Kozma's fielding kept him at replacement level fWAR-wise in 2013, which is more than Ryan can say for his time as a Yankee, and he didn't stop the Cardinals from winning 97 games and reaching the World Series.
What's working in Kozma's favor is the fact that if the Yankees try and send him down, they could possibly lose him, while Torreyes has two option years left. That might seem like a non-issue, and that's what it should be, but the Yankees have a weird paranoia that if they try and pass their offensively-challenged veterans through waivers, there will be a line of teams waiting to snatch them up. Remember last year when Refsnyder got the boot after four games to preserve the "asset" that was Ryan? Or in 2012 when Francisco Cervelli got banished to Scranton for Chris Stewart?
The Yankees' final infielder could ultimately be someone who isn't on the roster yet, as Brandon Kuty has suggested. They looked into Juan Uribe in February and Ruben Tejada two weeks ago when he was released by the Mets but they came up well short in both cases. Tejada can expect more playing time with the Cardinals with Jhonny Peralta out, and matching their $1.5 million offer would have cost the Yankees $3 million, luxury tax included. The Yankees will keep looking over the next few days, but giving up anything significant in money or players for a 25th man seems unlikely for a team that hasn't signed anyone to a Major League deal all winter.
If things go right, the role allotted to Kozma or Torreyes won't be a big one. It'll mean filling in for Chase Headley at third when he rests once a week or less and maybe a game here or there at short against a tough lefty. If Headley happens to go down, though, things get serious. The Yankees have almost nothing at third in the upper minors until Refsnyder figures out how to field balls with his glove instead of his teeth.
Roster decisions can't always be a meritocracy, but this isn't CC Sabathia and $50 million we're talking about. This is one that can be.