At some point, the New York Yankees were going to have to sign or trade for a shortstop to replace Derek Jeter.
On Friday, the Bronx Bombers landed a potential long-term replacement for The Captain, acquiring Didi Gregorius from the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade with the Detroit Tigers, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.
Though the Yankees were forced to part with right-hander Shane Greene, the hope is that the 24-year-old Gregorius, who will remain under team control through 2019, will be able to hold down the position for the next five years.
But with such big shoes to fill, are the Yankees asking too much of Gregorius?
When the Diamondbacks traded for Gregorius prior to the 2013 season, Kevin Towers, the team’s general manager at the time, offered a bold comparison for his new shortstop, via Bob McManaman of AZCentral.com:
When I saw him he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter. I was fortunate enough to see Jeter when he was in high school in Michigan and he’s got that type of range. He’s got speed. He’s more of a line drive-type hitter, but I think he’s got the type of approach at the plate where I think there’s going to be power there as well.
While Towers certainly got ahead of himself—after all, neither he nor Gregorius remains with the organization—his general belief that the Dutch native would one day emerge as an impact shortstop was a reasonable expectation.
Gregorius, who turns 25 in February, has always drawn rave reviews for his defense at shortstop, which is more or less the reason he’s now been included in two separate three-team trades in the last three years.
But while he passes the eye test with ease, showing impressive range in all directions as well as natural fluidity at the position, the defensive metrics don’t suggest he’s that strong of a defender at shortstop.
Specifically, FanGraphs’ overall defensive rating (3.9 Def) for Gregorius places him 24th among all shortstops with 1,000 innings at the position over the last two seasons, ahead of guys like Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Adeiny Hechavarria and, as you probably guessed, Derek Jeter.
The biggest knock on Gregorius’ defense is that his footwork and body control have a tendency to be inconsistent, which, as the metrics confirm, might limit his playmaking ability at shortstop. That said, his athletic 6’2” frame allows him to cover ground well, and his arm strength is an easy plus.
Offensively, Gregorius has shown flashes of promise over parts of three seasons in the major leagues, but he has yet to develop the overall consistency to hold down an everyday role.
Gregorius’ first full season in the major leagues in 2013 was his best offensive campaign to date. Playing in 103 games for the Diamondbacks, he batted .252/.332/.373 with seven home runs, 16 doubles and promising strikeout and walk rates of 16.1 and 9.2 percent, respectively, over 404 plate appearances. However, his overall production was below league average (92 wRC+), and his career-high 1.4 fWAR was heavily influenced by his strong defense, via FanGraphs.
This past season, the emergence of rookie Chris Owings limited Gregorius’ playing time, though Owings’ second-half shoulder injury did re-open the door for him. Unfortunately, Gregorius struggled to make the most of the opportunity, batting just .226/.290/.363 with six home runs to produce a 76 wRC+ over 299 plate appearances.
Specifically, Gregorius’ offensive struggles stemmed from a decreased aggressiveness outside the strike zone (rather than inside), and he also was worse at making contact against quality secondary pitches. And for a guy with minimal power, Gregorius still puts way too many balls in the air to seemingly hit for a high average.
On top of that, Gregorius has yet to prove he can truly handle left-handed pitching since reaching the major leagues, evidenced by his .184 batting average, zero home runs and 25 percent strikeout rate in 180 career plate appearances against southpaws.
That said, he has shown glimpses of power in the past over the last two years, and it’s possible there’s some potential there given his fly-ball rate. To jump the yard more often, however, he’ll need to employ a more pull-oriented approach so as to best utilize his raw power, rather than trying to do too much with pitches on the outer half.
Though he’s an impressive athlete with average in-game speed, Gregorius has proved that he’s not much of a base stealer, with only three stolen bases in five attempts over 191 games in the major leagues. Therefore, it’s a good thing that he’s shown he can consistently post an extra-base hit rate above 50 percent (he posted a 51 percent clip in 2013 and followed it with 58 percent last season).
Given the holes in Gregorius’ swing and approach, it’s hard to say how Towers once saw a young Jeter in him.
However, the Yankees’ decision to gamble on his age and upside is nonetheless a healthy risk, since he’s a guy with five years of team control who can offer modest power from the left side of the plate as well as solid baserunning and defense.
A person familiar with the way the Yankees rate players say they add points to a player’s offensive ability based on how much he helps on defense, and that is why they had such interest in Gregorius. Plus, the Yankees feel it is hard to find offense in this market, particularly at shortstop. A team can improve by scoring more or giving up less. The Yankees believe Gregorius will help them give up less while still having the chance to grow into a competent hitter.
Gregorius has accrued 1.159 years of service time and will qualify for arbitration next offseason as a Super Two, but the Yankees now have five years to see if he can blossom into something more than a defense-first shortstop.
With Gregorius now ideally locked in at shortstop for years to come, the Yankees will presumably shift their focus to the hot corner. As it stands, that spot is a potential nightmare scenario in and of itself with the return of Alex Rodriguez on the horizon.