BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Surely, this isn’t where former Richmond County High standout Kyle Roller thought he’d be at this stage of his career.
But thanks to an opportunity from the independent Atlantic League’s Somerset Patriots, he has a chance to get back to a major-league organization to one day live out his Major League Baseball dreams.
Currently, the 28-year-old slugger is about an hour drive from Yankee Stadium, where many thought he’d be after quickly moving through the Yankees farm system after they drafted him in the eighth round out of East Carolina University back in 2010.
“I was able to grow a whole lot as a person and as a player (with the Yankees),” said Roller of his six seasons under their umbrella. “They want to see you succeed and they go out of their way so you can reach your level of potential.”
But he never reached the big-league level — something he felt like he came close to achieving after hitting 20 home runs with a .300 batting average between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton just two seasons ago.
“I had a really good year in 2014 and I was able to put up decent numbers,” he explained. “I felt like I kind of belonged there. I felt like I was clicking on all cylinders and like I was an injury or two away from being able to reach my goal.”
Roller left the Yankees organization after last season and latched on with the Tampa Bay Rays, who assigned him to Triple-A Durham after spring training. But a slow start combined with an oblique injury made Roller expendable and they released him in mid-July.
It didn’t take long for Somerset to come calling.
“This is good baseball,” Roller said. “I didn’t know a whole lot about independent ball. I’d heard of it, but I didn’t really know the teams or how good this league is. And I’m just fortunate to still be playing.”
The 6-foot-1, 250 pound first baseman got off to a hot start at his new home, TD Bank Ballpark, smashing the game-winning home run on July 28 against the Bridgeport Bluefish in his first game there — after beginning his Atlantic League career with four games on the road.
Making his transition easier is a bevy of former Yankees farmhands on the roster, as Jeremy Bleich, Nik Turley and Jim Miller have all also recently joined the club.
“It’s kind of like a family reunion,” Roller joked. “I haven’t seen some of these guys in a couple years, so it’s good to catch up, but it’s almost like you feel like you’re at home with all those guys in there to make you feel welcome. It’s easier to play that way.”
Patriots manager Brett Jodie, himself a former Yankee, echoed those sentiments.
“It’s always more comfortable,” Jodie said. “When I first came (to Somerset as a player), I knew some of the old Yankee guys. (Jeff) Nettles was one of the first ones to say, ‘Hey Brett, what’s going on?’ and it makes you feel like that guy was a good player — and so was that guy and that guy and that guy. So you realize you’re in good company and it’s a real deal league.”
Roller is hitting .273 with a home run and two RBI in his first eight games with Somerset, and has found himself in the middle of the order — a spot he’s certainly accustomed to.
It’s there that he’s also able to show off some intangibles that could speed up the process of making his transition back to affiliated baseball a quick one.
“He’s got kind of a compact swing for a bigger guy, but he likes to go the other way, so that’s always a plus,” said Patriots hitting coach Glen Barker. “Usually, when you get those big power guys, they’re very pull-happy. He’s got a pretty good eye and likes to hit it the other way, so that’s always a positive.”
To his credit, Roller isn’t putting any sort of timetable on how long his stay in Somerset will be, but is enjoying himself for however long he’ll be there.
“I’m just going to play it out and see what happens,” Roller said. “I’ll put my best foot forward, give it all I’ve got and hopefully I can get to my goal of reaching the big leagues.”