Only three days after the abrupt end to the Yankees’ season at the hands of the rival Red Sox, news emerged that star shortstop Didi Gregorius would undergo Tommy John surgery to address a pre-existing elbow injury exacerbated during the ALDS. General Manager Brian Cashman said that the team was aware of the partial ulnar collateral ligament tear in Didi’s elbow when they acquired him from Arizona prior to the 2015 season, and that Gregorius re-aggravated it making a throw from left field after playing a ball off the Green Monster in Game Two. The throw “was the finishing off of something that was a sleeping giant,” Cashman said.
The news sent shock waves reverberating throughout The Empire. Despite missing time this season due to a pair of unrelated injuries, Gregorius established new career highs in home runs (27), runs scored (89), walks (48), stolen bases (10), on-base percentage (.335), slugging average (.494), OPS (.829), and WAR (4.2). The team’s unofficial “infield captain” anchored a young crew, while contributing an indispensable middle-of-the-order left-handed bat to New York’s offense. Few options exist to truly replace such a valuable player.
Even before this terrible news broke, I strongly favored signing Manny Machado to play third base, which would allow the Yankees to shift Miguel Andujar to designated hitter. Andujar compiled an impressive 4.6 offensive WAR in 2018, while producing an atrocious -2.2 defensive WAR. His embarrassing -25 defensive runs saved was the second worst in MLB out of 256 position players with at least 500 innings in the field.
Machado is a generational talent who enjoyed a career year in 2018. The 26-year-old drove in 107 runs while slashing .297/.367/.538 — all career highs. Machado matched his personal best 37 home runs and 70 walks, and his .905 OPS exceeded his previous career average by a whopping 100 points. His 11.3 dWAR and 73 defensive runs saved compiled across seven seasons stand head and shoulders above Andujar’s woeful fielding stats.
Cashman was understandably non-committal when pressed on an expected date for Didi’s return. The GM said perhaps as early as May, but maybe not until August. The fact is, we just don’t know.
According to Web MD, rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery usually takes about a year, but in some cases, up to 2 years are needed for athletes to return to their previous level of ability. It’s extremely rare for a position player to undergo the operation, and results vary.
Mets prospect T.J. Rivera underwent the procedure on September 14, 2017. He attempted to begin rehab in Triple-A this July, nearly 10 months after his surgery. Rivera was shut down after only six games due to arm discomfort. Unfortunately, the young man has yet to return to action. His elbow still hurt when the minor-league season ended at the beginning of September.
Gleyber Torres had Tommy John surgery in June of 2017, reported to Spring Training on time in February, and after a brief stint in the minors, was called up to the Yankees at the end of April. While no issues surrounding Gleyber’s rehab were reported, it’s important to note that the operation was performed on his non-throwing elbow, and injuries requiring Tommy John surgery are not known to interfere with a player’s ability to hit or to field a batted ball.
Those are the two most recent position players to attempt a comeback from Tommy John surgery, and the only one who had the operation performed on his throwing elbow suffered complications. In Didi’s case, it would be wise for the Yankees to hope for the best, while planning for the worst.
The Yankees have absolutely no attractive internal options to replace Gregorius. Besides Torres, they have only three other middle infielders on their 40-man roster. Ronald Torreyes produced a .664 OPS in 100 at-bats this season, and has compiled 1.5 WAR over 615 career MLB plate appearances. Tyler Wade slashed .167/.214/.273 this year, and compiled -0.6 WAR in 66 career games. Thairo Estrada produced a .441 OPS in 18 minor-league games after missing most of the 2018 campaign due to injury.
Starting any of the three at shortstop for an extended period will most certainly create a black hole in the lineup where Didi’s mighty bat once resided. After that poor showing in the ALDS, the Yankees need to improve their offense, not diminish it.
If I were Cashman, I would move to re-sign both Neil Walker and Adeiny Hechavarria right now, while the exclusive negotiating window is still open. Walker might be especially amenable, having been left at the alter until nearly the end of camp this spring. It took him awhile to get going because of that, but once he did, he contributed. His splits batting from the left side were particularly good: 10 doubles, 10 home runs, 40 RBI, and a .713 OPS in 274 at-bats. Walker came through with a lot of clutch hits for the Yankees, proved versatile on defense, and took command of the infield in Didi’s absence. His veteran leadership and positive clubhouse presence is a big plus.
Hechavarria, coming off the bench to play out of position at third base, made one of the most spectacular catches I’ve ever seen against Boston during the Division Series. That alone is worth bringing him back on a one-year contract.
Re-signing both Walker and Hechavarria now provides valuable insurance, just in case Machado shuns the pinstripes. If the Yankees sign him too, then they have even more options, including moving Andujar to DH where he just might belong. If Didi is able to play at some point in 2019, then Walker and Hechavarria can continue to supply proven depth off the bench, just like they did last year.
Didi’s Tommy John surgery boldly underscores the Yankees’ imperative to sign Machado. As soon as the superstar files for free agency, Cashman needs to make him an offer he can’t refuse. We’ve seen The Ninja in action before. Get it done, Cash.