Albuquerque, New Mexico —— Rafael Ynoa knows he isn’t a prospect.
When the final curtain falls on the infielder’s career, he’ll be quickly forgotten like so many utility infielders and Triple-A journeymen before him. After all, the 29-year-old Colorado Rockies farmhand spent eight years in the minors—with two different organizations—before he even got a chance to step foot on a Major League field. When he finally made it to Denver, it was just a 19-game stint before heading back to Triple-A anonymity. He’s never quite been able to establish himself in the big leagues.
Little about Rafael Ynoa is memorable, perhaps save his notorious (and undeserved) reputation as a “tough out.” Those were the words of former Rockies skipper Walt Weiss following a close game two years ago in which the manager decided to allow Ynoa to hit for himself in the ninth inning rather than pinch hit with slugger Carlos Gonzalez, who was available and waiting on the bench. Ynoa hit into a game-ending double play. What a tough out, right?
That decision wasn’t Ynoa’s fault, but Weiss’, and yet the utility infielder became an inadvertent casualty in the derisive “tough out” slams still directed at the Rockies’ now-former manager. And so that’s how fans in Denver will forever remember Ynoa, the set-up to the “tough out” punch line every time Twitter hears his name. But look at his career from a different perspective—one that focuses on his 4,028 minor league plate appearances—and maybe you’ll find Weiss wasn’t so far off with all the tough out talk after all. With time logged in all seven levels of professional baseball, across 14 different cities and 11 different leagues, Ynoa has been through the grind again, and again, and again, and he’s always come back for more. What a tough out, right?
At one point with the Los Angeles Dodgers—who initially signed him as a 17-year-old out of Santiago, Dominican Republic back in 2005—Ynoa’s career stalled out for two straight seasons at Double-A Chattanooga. He probably should have been done then, as a 26-year-old with no Triple-A experience, but the Rockies took a shot on him and Ynoa was game to give it one more go. On September 1, 2014, tough out Rafael Ynoa made his Major League debut with the Colorado Rockies, and true to his Dodgers roots, that debut night saw him slug three hits against the San Francisco Giants.
“It was hard, I had good years [in the Dodgers’ system] and I never got the opportunity, but I never gave up,” Ynoa told Baseball Census before a recent Albuquerque Isotopes game in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. “I got to this organization [the Colorado Rockies], and they gave me the opportunity to see my dream come true. You know you can be a good player and you can help a team to win games, and you keep working hard so you can get back there.”
When you’re a minor league journeyman, getting to the big leagues is the entire battle. But once you do it, as Ynoa did at the end of 2014, your mind moves on to the next obsessive pursuit: getting back there. It’s far easier said than done, as we’ve seen earlier this season here with the Albuquerque Isotopes, and Ynoa is now experiencing every part of the mental grind as he goes through his third season with the Isotopes and fourth in the Rockies organization. But now being passed over by the likes of Pat Valaika when it comes time for call-ups, Ynoa can’t do much more than what he’s always done.
“Nobody wants to be here, you know? Everyone wants to be in the big leagues,” he said. “It is how it is, but we’re here to grind it out everyday and wait for the call.”
Pragmatically speaking, that call will probably never come again. Ynoa is nearing 30, not on the top of the utility infield depth chart, and not even on the Colorado Rockies’ 40-man roster, which further complicates things. But he is impressing another manager other than Weiss with his tough out attitude and mindset of a veteran not afraid of the grind.
“Raffy has been with me for a couple years, and he’s very stable and very consistent,” Albuquerque Isotopes manager Glenallen Hill said of the utility infielder. “He has a level of dependability that’s instrumental when you are playing in this league. He’s very consistent.”
For more than three years now, it’s been Hill who has watched Ynoa go up and back from the PCL to Coors Field, a career yo-yo equal parts exhilarating and disillusioning. And it’s also been Hill who put together the best moment of Ynoa’s career with that first call-up announcement three seasons ago.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of first time call-ups and so I kind of play it by feel and I come up with a lot of different things and say a lot of different things,” Hill said. “I try to create a lot of different situations where the last thing they’re thinking about is being called up and then I kind of drop it on them. I have a lot of fun with that.”
True to form, that’s exactly how Rafael Ynoa’s first call-up went.
“When I got called up to the big leagues, that was really special,” Ynoa said. “I was in Colorado Springs playing and the manager ‘G Hill’ gave me the news, and I was really happy. That was probably my best moment in the minor leagues. I never got into my mind that I was going to get called up, because I was new into the organization and I’m not a prospect here. But I was having a good year, and I never expected that. That was the best moment of my career.”
For the two men, a bond forever sticks after a moment like that. Hill will continue to be the bearer of good news for other players in the future; Ynoa is just hoping he’ll get one more call, just one more time, before the final curtain quickly closes on his career.
Regardless, Rafael Ynoa has been playing professional baseball for a dozen years. He’s logged more than 4,000 professional plate appearances. He has 56 hits in the Major Leagues. And he’s still there, still with the Albuquerque Isotopes, still playing for Glenallen Hill and still biding his time hoping for another shot.
Yeah, he’s a tough out, all right.
To read our scouting report on ‘tough out’ Rafael Ynoa, please click here.