For a guy who the Yankees had been trying to acquire for over a year, Didi Gregorius sure seemed to come as a surprise when he was announced as the center piece of the 3-team trade involving the Tigers and Diamondbacks last Friday. Leading up to then, the bulk of the trade talk centered around Troy Tulowitzki and Alexei Ramirez. The primary FA focus was on the trio of Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Stephen Drew. There was no thought given to Gregorius, which is probably exactly what the Yankees wanted.
The reaction to the trade around the Yankosphere over the past 2.5 days has been mostly positive, with a noticeable contingent of fans expressing concern over Gregorius' underwhelming performance with the bat to date. He's no stud 2-way shortstop, that much is certain. But that's a much rarer commodity in baseball these days than it was during Derek Jeter's golden years. Gregorius is young and talented enough to project improvement in his game, and that's more than anybody can say about the Yankees' internal shortstop options. In somewhat of a particular order, here are the rest of my thoughts on the trade:
- First off, let's tackle the notion that Gregorius can't hit. It's not true. Well, it's not entirely true. His .243/.313/.366 career slash line is nothing special and his .226/.290/.363 line in 2014 was a step in the wrong direction. That career slash is based on 724 Major League plate appearances spread across 2+ seasons though, and buried within that small sample size are some encouraging numbers. Like the .275/.341/.403 line he put up in the first half of 2013. Or the pretty good 8.1% career BB rate. Or the .262/.332/.411 career batting line against right-handed pitching.
- Keep in mind that we're talking about a guy who was playing partial seasons at age 23 and 24 for one of the most inept organizations in professional baseball. And he did hit .310/.389/.447 in 57 games at Triple-A last year. That's not to say those numbers should be used as some kind of predictive tool to set expectations for Major League performance, but they do show that Gregorius has some natural hitting skills working for him. He is not completely devoid of talent. He's a good contact hitter, can work counts and take walks, has shown a little pop, and his FB/LD contact tendencies should serve him well as a left-handed hitter playing in Yankee Stadium.
- If Gregorius can turn into a .260/.330/.380 hitter and play above-average defense at shortstop, that's a very valuable player to have. For the sake of comparison, the AL average for shortstops this past season was .254/.304/.359. The Yankees ranked 27th and 29th in team wOBA from the shortstop position in 2013 and 2014. Gregorius may never come close to being Jeter in his prime, but those days were already long gone. His production to date would be a major improvement over what the team has gotten recently.
- What he could give them over the next 5 seasons is what the ultimate success of this deal hinges on. The fact that the Yankees get 5 years of Gregorius should not be overlooked either. They have a major need to both get younger and get more from their younger players. Gregorius represents a potential answer for both of those needs and he'll come at a fraction of the cost that a Stephen Drew or Asdrubal Cabrera would have. If nothing else, the Yankees will have a plus defender at the most important infield position through the early part of his prime. If he hits enough to be a 2-3 WAR player during that time period, the deal becomes a big win for the Yanks.
- The defensive upgrade is another important factor to consider. It fits with the other moves the Yankees have made to address their up-the-middle positions and improve their overall team defense. I think most people would prefer adding more offensive help than defensive, and while I agree with that general sentiment, I also like that the team is being set up defensively to better align with what Larry Rothschild is trying to do with the rotation (pound the bottom of the strike zone, induce more ground balls and weak contact, etc.).
- I touched on this on Saturday, but I want to reiterate the point here again. Gregorius needs to play every day and needs to be allowed to hit against left-handed pitching. He should not be in a platoon with Brendan Ryan. Gregorius has hit southpaws poorly, but that has come in a 180-PA sample size. Efforts need to be made to improve his approach against lefties and he needs to be given the playing time to put those efforts to work. Let's actually see if he can improve against left-handers before deciding that he can never be allowed to face them. That's the only way to see if Gregorius really is the shortstop of the future, by letting him play every day and work on his weaknesses.
- On the other side of the trade, I understand some people being bummed and even upset that Shane Greene is gone. He more than held his own in 2014, to the point that he looked like a viable option as a back-of-the-rotation arm for years to come. That said, Greene is a 26-year-old 2-pitch pitcher who greatly outperformed expectations and projections last season. His ceiling is very likely what we saw last year and he may never reach that ceiling again now that the rest of the league has a book on him. He was a low-level prospect, and the type of pitcher that's much easier to develop than an ace or #2-type. To get a young starting shortstop with upside for him is great return value.
- With Greene gone, the Yankees are now down to 3 guaranteed Opening Day starters: Tanaka, Pineda, Sabathia. Cash said both David Phelps and Adam Warren were told to prepare to be starters next spring, so it looks another annual 5th starter competition could be in the works. Regardless of who wins, the Yankees need to add an arm to replace Greene and that arm will almost assuredly come from the FA market. McCarthy, Lester, Masterson, Scherzer, Kuroda, whoever. It just needs to be somebody now that the rotation has become the thinnest part of the current roster.
All in all, I'm a big fan of this move and I think everybody should be. The Yankees gave up less in terms of dollars and prospects than they would have had to in order to add any of the bigger names and they got a player in return who has room to grow. They've scouted and liked Gregorius for a while, so they must have a plan for how to develop him. As always, time will tell who the real big winner in this 3-way tango was, but there's reason to be excited about Gregorius' potential and what he could bring to the lineup.