MOOSIC — It’s a Friday afternoon at PNC Field.
Two hours before first pitch and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders are taking part in batting practice before they face the Rochester Red Wings later that night. But there’s an unusual presence behind the batting cage.
New York Yankees senior director of player development Kevin Reese is standing behind home plate. He’s taking in batting practice, chatting with longtime friend Rochester Red Wings manager Joel Skinner and a couple of RailRiders coaches and even answering a phone call.
This is Reese’s second time at PNC Field this season, in what has been a massive success for player development, so far.
“There’s been a lot of action,” said Reese, who’s in his first year as the organization’s senior director of player development. “Just trying to learn the ins and outs of the job that you don’t see kind of from the outside — getting better to know the staff and everything — and then just trying to make these players better. It’s been exciting.”
Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar are thriving in the majors after being assigned to the RailRiders to start the season. However, Andujar never made it to Moosic after getting recalled just four days into the Yankees’ season.
Then guys like Clint Frazier, Tyler Austin, Tyler Wade, Kyle Higashioka and Giovanny Gallegos — who were all RailRiders at one point this season — have been able to help out the big-league club when called upon this season.
But it’s not just the big names or the big-league club. Ryan McBroom is having a career year at age 26 and Abiatal Avelino is starting to look like the player the Yankees thought he could be when they signed him as a 16-year-old in 2011.
“Those guys are two of the hardest workers and guys that are fun to be around,” Reese said of McBroom and Avelino. “Teammates love them. Coaches love them. So you’re always pulling for those guys and it’s nice to see them making some strides. We got McBroom in a trade. (Avelino’s) been around for a long time and there’s been people in the organization that have believed this was in him, so it’s nice to seeing him have some success.
“What’s great is that there’s been guys that are going up and down, between Frazier and Tyler Wade and Higgy, our goal all along is to make sure that when that phone rings for the major league club that those guys are ready,” Reese added. “Not only from a performance standpoint, but to be a professional and do all of the things the right way and we’ve had pretty much rave reviews throughout and that’s all you can ask for, really.”
But it’s players like McBroom and Avelino that might have suffered the most with the Yankees logjam of a farm system at the top.
With players like Brandon Drury, Ronald Torreyes, Wade, Frazier and Austin taking up roster spots in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for much of the season, players like McBroom and Avelino have had to take their lumps and spend time in Double-A Trenton even though they deserved to play a level higher.
However, the fact that they were sent down to Trenton instead of being kept on the bench in Triple-A can be seen as a positive. The Yankees wanted to see McBroom get everyday reps at first base and Avelino receive the same at shortstop. There were openings with the Thunder.
“There’s a lot of pieces that go into this puzzle,” Reese said. “There’s other players. You know, you have Tyler Austin here, who you didn’t really expect to have here, that’s getting reps at first base, Mike Ford’s done a nice job here the past couple of years and, I think, that a lot of times a player would rather be at a higher level. When I think, ‘Hey, from a player development stand point, we want you playing every day. We want you playing the position that we think you’re going to play when you get to the big leagues.’ So there’s a lot of honesty there.
“You try to tell the player, ‘Hey, this is what we’re thinking and sometimes it’s through no fault of your own.’ But that’s the reality of being in a system that’s got good players and hopefully has more coming.”
Reese hopes the fact that he’s been in these players shoes before helps ease the process.
He was traded form the San Diego Padres to the New York Yankees in 2001, but only played in six big-league games.
“I know firsthand,” Reese said. “I think it helps to say, ‘Hey man, I was behind Bernie Williams and Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu and all of those guys. And I was the one who was X-Y-Z.’ So hopefully it makes it a little easier.”
But that doesn’t mean the conversations are easy ones.
Whether it was Yankees manager Aaron Boone’s conversation with Drury about his recent demotion or when RailRiders manager Bobby Mitchell’s off day was ruined by having to tell McBroom he was going back down to Double-A despite almost winning International League Batter of the Week back in the middle of June.
The latest blow was a phone call Mitchell had to make to outfielder Zack Zehner and infielder Bruce Caldwell over the all-star break. Despite Zehner batting .298 with eight doubles, a triple, a home run and six RBI in his latest 17-game stretch with the RailRiders and Caldwell batting .292 with a double, two home runs and five RBI over his last seven games, they were both still demoted to Double-A on Thursday.
“It’s always tough,” Mitchell said. “On their break, to call them and tell them they’re going down, but it’s just, you have (Mike) Ford coming back, you have Drury coming back, you have two pitchers coming back. It’s just a roster issue. You make sure they know they’re a big part of what we’ve accomplished as a team and everything. Hopefully down the line they get back up here and we see them back.”
Even though he’s only been on the job for less than a year, Reese has already been able to reap the benefits of the organization’s hard work in player development.
To see guys like Frazier, Higashioka or Wade play for the RailRiders just a few short weeks ago and now be meaningful parts of the Yankees’ whole has been rewarding. And now that the second half is underway, Reese is exciting to see who follows the foot steps of a Frazier or a Higashioka and helps out the big-league club next.
“Probably one of the most rewarding parts of this job is helping guys,” Reese said. “I haven’t been here long enough to say that we did a ton with them, but I know everybody in this organization on the player development side and the major league side has played a role in their professional and playing development. That’s what it’s all about, seeing those guys go up and help the team win and have fun.
“I think the exciting part for me is I go through every boxscore every day — from a video perspective, from a video analysis perspective — and you never know who’s going to pop up. There’s guys that make strides in-season, there’s guys that end up fading, there’s guys that surprise you. So I can’t say there’s anybody in particular that I’m looking to see, but I’m curious to see who turns that corner in the second half.”
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle