It was sometime before his junior year at the University of Arizona that Rob Refsnyder began getting serious attention from professional scouts. He’d been a productive college outfielder. He went to the Cape Cod League and played well. His bat showed significant pro potential. Scouts came calling, and many of them had the same suggestion.
They wanted Refsnyder to start taking ground balls. His bat would play, they thought, but it wasn’t ideal for a right fielder. That bat in the hands of a second baseman, though, had real promise.
Refsnyder politely declined.
“It was a certain thing where, I had respect for our second baseman at the time out in Arizona, and mostly respect for my coach,” Refsnyder said. “I think I slid down the draft board strictly because I didn’t take the opportunity to take infield and outfield (drills) because I thought it was disrespectful to care more about your draft stock than winning and things like that. If I would have gone up to coach (Andy) Lopez and asked to take infield and outfield, he would have said some choice words to me. I knew going into the draft that was something I was probably going to have to do.”
When the Yankees made Refsnyder their fifth-rounder in the spring of 2012, Refsnyder wound up exactly where he knew he’d be eventually. The Yankees left him play out that first half season as an outfielder, but the inevitable conversion came from the very beginning of 2013. Refsnyder played second base every day through Low-A and High-A last season.
Aside from a handful of games his freshman year of college — when Arizona’s regular second baseman was hurt — Refsnyder had never played the infield. And it showed. He made 25 errors last season; 15 of them before May 20, only two in his final month.
“I feel like, to be a successful baseball team, the middle infield’s got to be really, really solid,” Refsnyder said. “Last year, it was just so new, so I was learning on the fly. Every game I would learn something new. I’d have some experienced guys like Cito Culver and Ali (Castillo) kind of help me out. Really, when I say I had no experience, I had no experience. I’d come in the dugout and Luis (Sojo, the Tampa manager) would tell me something. I’d try to program it and go back out there, so it was definitely a learning experience, but I enjoyed it.”
Complete lack of infield experience is fairly rare in professional baseball, if only because so many top athletes are automatically plugged in as shortstops in high school. Even a lot of top pitching prospects get time at shortstop or third base in high school. Refsnyder might have done that as well, but he was also a high school basketball player and a standout football player. Baseball was more of a seasonal thing for him.
“I didn’t really have time to learn (in high school) because infield is really complicated, really complex,” Refsnyder said. “So I was just thrown into the outfield.”
In pro ball, he was thrown to the wolves.
The Yankees, though, have been happy with Refsnyder’s progress. Vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman confirmed that the organization plans to move Refsnyder up to Double-A Trenton to start this season. It will be only Refsnyder’s second full year as a professional, but he was an advanced hitter out of college, he’s improved at his new position, and last season he hit .293/.413/.413 between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa. The bat is as advertised. The glove is coming along.
It’s a still a learning process, though. Refsnyder said that just this spring he saw Chase Utley charge a ground ball, one that Refsnyder would have stayed back on. He’s still figuring out things like that — the angles to take, when to be aggressive, the timing on certain plays — but this winter, he never picked up an outfielder’s glove. He said he feels like a second baseman now.
And wouldn’t you know it, second base just happens to be a position that’s suddenly wide open for a future in the Bronx.
“I understand the game,” Refsnyder said. “I understand that the corners are supposed to hit for more power. I understand that’s part of the game, that’s how general managers see it and things like that. I was always told, if you can hit, they’ll find a position. But if you can play middle infield and hit, that makes (a player) more valuable.
“Really, I’m easy. I’ll do whatever the coaches say, and I’ll work extremely hard at whatever they want me to do. I know at the end of the day, second base will help. I’m enjoying it, being close to the diamond and being a part of every play. If a team decides to move me back to the outfield, I’m comfortable with that. You won’t ever hear me complain. As long as I’m playing and enjoying baseball, that’s all I care about.”
Photo from the Charleston Riverdogs