Yankees fans were understandably shocked and concerned upon learning that Didi Gregorius would require Tommy John surgery to repair damage to his right elbow following New York’s Division Series loss to the Red Sox. The star shortstop underwent the procedure on October 17th without complications. Afterwards, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said that Gregorius could return to action sometime between June and August.
That estimate may be optimistic, since the average recovery time among non-pitchers who have the operation on their throwing elbows is 12-16 months. Regardless of the timeline for Didi’s return, the Yankees will have to replace him for a significant chunk of the 2019 season.
That won’t be an easy task. Aside from serving as the unofficial infield captain, Gregorius has been one of the most productive offensive players on the team. Gregorius’ 4.3 oWAR in 2018 was eclipsed only by Aaron Hicks (4.9) and Miguel Andujar (4.6). That’s right, Gregorius contributed more to the Bombers’ offense than Aaron Judge (3.9), Giancarlo Stanton (3.4), Gleyber Torres (2.9), and Gary Sanchez (1.1).
I already wrote that Didi’s surgery underscores the Yankees’ imperative to sign four-time All-Star Manny Machado, and the front office appears to be doing its due diligence. This week, Jayson Stark of The Athletic reported that sources told him the Yankees were conducting ‘extensive’ research on Manny Machado’s background. His sources said manager Aaron Boone, front office members, and scouts are among those calling around about Machado.
Even if Cashman goes all out to sign Machado, there’s no guarantee that the generational talent won’t decide that he’d rather play elsewhere. He is a free agent, after all. So what other options are there?
Unfortunately, the free agent shortstop pool is pretty shallow this offseason. There are only 12 shortstops listed as free agents, and Machado is the only one who out-hit Gregorius last season. None of the others even came close to matching Gregorius’ offensive production.
The talent pool at second base, however, is brimming this winter. A whopping 24 second basemen filed for free agency, with a number of good hitters among them. The Yankees could opt to sign one of them, and subsequently slide Torres over to his natural position at shortstop.
Jed Lowrie just put together back-to-back 4.0 plus oWAR campaigns, including a career-high 4.7 in 2018. The switch-hitting 34-year-old actually came up as a shortstop, although he has mostly played second base in recent years. He also saw time at the hot corner throughout his career, so his versatility could be beneficial later in the season given the uncertain timeline of Gregorius return.
Asdrubal Cabrera also played at second, third, and short throughout his career. Although the 32-year-old is rated as a sub-par defender, he produced 3.2 oWAR last year for the Mets and Phillies. Brian Dozier (1.8 oWAR) and Ian Kinsler (1.3) are two second basemen who experienced down years in 2018, so they could represent low-risk, high-reward signings for the Yankees.
Re-acquiring Starlin Castro from the Marlins is another option the Yankees could explore. He produced 3.4 oWAR last season, and is due to earn a reasonable $11.85 million in 2019. Castro also carries a $16 million team option with a $1 million buyout for 2020, making him an appealing possibility as a short-term replacement.
All of these players dwarfed the production of Adeiny Hechavarria and Neil Walker in 2018. We’ve already addressed the team’s internal options to replace Didi, and they are nothing to get excited about. Cashman has stated that he prefers to go outside the organization, so I don’t expect there to be a spring training competition between Tyler Wade and Ronald Torreyes for a starting job.
Machado remains the best candidate to replace Gregorius at shortstop. But if the Yankees can’t make that work, then they do have other attractive options to pursue that won’t leave a black hole in Gregorius’ lineup spot.