Scottsdale, Ariz. -- All it took for Rafael Ynoa to reach the big leagues was 773 career minor league games (just 3,192 plate appearances, but who's counting?) over the course of nine seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers' and Colorado Rockies' systems. Stops in 12 minor league outposts—13 if you count the 28-year-old Dominican's winter ball stints back in his home country—finally netted Ynoa a big league job at the end of 2014.
The utility infielder earned his call-up the hard way, and now that he's something of a regular on the Rockies' 25-man roster, he can already look back and appreciate how far he's come.
"I thank the Rockies for giving me the opportunity to get to the big leagues," Ynoa told Purple Row in the Rockies' clubhouse in Scottsdale. "It was a long, long journey. It was a lot of years with the Dodgers in the minor leagues, and I finally saw my dream come true with the Rockies."
"I’m just trying to do my best, trying to give the Rockies the best of me," he added, flashing his contagious smile just at the thought of reaching his ultimate dream.
For Ynoa, giving the Rockies his best doesn't mean anything like hitting home runs (he has zero in his big league career; just 27 in ten minor league seasons), or even playing every day in the field. Rather, his best is seen carved out in a very specific bench role unique to the roster demands of a National League club. The responsibility is not lost on the infielder.
"I know the type of player I am, and that's what I have to do, I have to work hard at second, short, and third," Ynoa conceded of his role shuttling around the diamond as a backup infielder. "When the opportunity comes, I need to feel confident at each position. I know the type of job that I’m able to do, so I just try to work the same time in each position. I’ve even been practicing in the outfield. It’s just the effort and the work I have to put in every day."
Work ethic is a big thing for a guy like Ynoa, who sometimes goes days between plate appearances or chances in the field, waiting for his opportunity to help the team whenever a starter needs a day off or a lineup spot opens for even the quickest of looks. But to hear him tell it, Ynoa will never consider himself defined by that backup role — in fact, he believes his resistance to the term has helped his preparation.
"Every player wants to be a starter, but you have to work hard," Ynoa said. "I work hard to be a starter, and I don’t consider myself a bench player. You can be a bench player, but you can’t consider yourself like that. You must work to play every day, and whenever the opportunity comes, you have to take advantage of it."
Opportunity is afoot this spring after the Rockies' presumptive starting shortstop, Jose Reyes, was banished from camp amid allegations of domestic violence. With an Opening Day court date, the Rockies are out a shortstop for the start of the season, and depending on the outcome, possibly significantly longer than that. Couple that with the injury recently sustained by Daniel Descalso, the club's other utility infielder, and all of a sudden there's a light at the end of the tunnel for Ynoa.
His work ethic and understanding of the game won't let him focus too much on that role, though.
"This spring I’ve been playing everywhere, because I have to take advantage of every opportunity," Ynoa said when asked about possibly starting at shortstop. "You never know what’s going to happen. If I have to play third, short, second, even in the outfield, it’s up to them. I’m just trying to do my job."
A feather in Ynoa's cap regarding that job is his ability to switch hit — a trait possessed only by him and Cristhian Adames in the club's infield. To Ynoa's credit, too, he's relatively consistent from both sides of the plate: against righties in his brief big league career, he has slashed .295/.323/.377 in 128 plate appearances, compared to .278/.297/.389 against lefties in 74 plate appearances. But while that plate coverage may well help the 28-year-old gain an inside track to a spot on the Opening Day roster, Ynoa recognizes there's much more work to be done in his offensive game.
"I’m working on watching more pitches, and being more selective at the plate," Ynoa admitted — a shrewd observation considering he's walked just seven times in 202 big league plate appearances. "But at the same time, I need to be aggressive. So it’s just about having a good approach, and my thing is trying to keep things simple."
Above all, though, Ynoa is here now—finally in the big leagues after a decade-long journey to the top of his profession. The goals become really simple at the most macro level at that point.
"I want to be the best baseball player I can be every day," Ynoa concluded. "That’s all I try to be. The best I can every day."
That seems like a good goal for a minor league journeyman now trying to stick in the big leagues.