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Who could replace Didi Gregorius in the Wild Card Game?

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With the Yankees’ shortstop sidelined for the time being, there are a couple of understudies ready to go

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The news that Didi Gregorius tore wrist cartilage in Saturday’s postseason clinching win over the Orioles was a throwaway line in a postgame pressor, but one that will have repercussions for the remainder of the Yankees’ season. He received a cortisone shot to reduce swelling and control the pain, but whenever you have something torn in a joint as crucial as your wrists, you can expect a whole lot of mobility difficulties in the meanwhile.

Not only is this a problem for the Yankees for the last week of the season, as they fight tooth and nail with the Oakland A’s for home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game, but it has an impact on the game itself. A single game elimination necessitates the best possible lineup, starting pitcher and bullpen a team can put together, since there are no second chances if the constructed roster doesn’t work. The Yankees must now consider the possibility that Didi misses the Wild Card Game altogether, and they must plan accordingly.

So what would a lineup – and a defense – without Didi look like? He’s by far the best fielder on what’s been a shaky Yankee infield, and his bat has been invaluable for the team over the past two seasons, especially in the last iteration of the AL Wild Card Game:

To start, it’s worth projecting the players that we know will be in the starting lineup, barring further injury. Please knock on every piece of wood in your home, office, or wherever you’re reading this. Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez will be Wild Card starters. Andrew McCutchen right now is a better third outfield option than Brett Gardner, and will also likely be a starter in left field. There are then two candidates to replace Didi, depending on whether the team wants to maximize offense of defense: Neil Walker and Adeiny Hechavarria

Offense

Sanchez – C
Voit – 1B
Walker – 2B
Torres – SS
Andujar – 3B
McCutchen – LF
Hicks – CF
Judge – RF
Stanton - DH

If Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone want to optimize offensive performance, Walker probably gets the nod and would take over second base. He hasn’t been great offensively this year, but has certainly hit better, considering his 107 wRC+ in the second half. His career offensive performance is a 112 wRC+ mark, giving him a very solid offensive floor. He’s also shown a flair for the dramatic, with a couple of very clutch hits already this year.

Hechavarria just doesn’t measure up offensively, with just a 73 career wRC+, and a 57 in the second half of 2018. Torres can probably handle shortstop for one game, and Hechavarria can be on call as a late inning defensive replacement. If the Yankees want to out-slug Oakland, the choice for Didi’s replacement probably has to be Walker.

Defense

Sanchez – C
Voit – 1B
Torres – 2B
Hechavarria – SS
Andujar – 3B
McCutchen – LF
Hicks – CF
Judge – RF
Stanton - DH

As one can imagine, if the Yankees are optimizing their defense, the lineup includes Hechavarria. He’s a glove-first shortstop, and an incredibly able one at that. The Yankees have seen big errors in the infield cost them runs, and in a game where every single play becomes incredibly important, you can make an argument that raising the defensive potential of the team is a premium concern. Whether the potential runs saved by having an excellent defender at short is worth an offensive black hole in the nine-spot is a calculation the front office will have to make.

There’s a third lineup option, and it occurs if Didi can hit but not field. It’s his right wrist that’s injured, meaning you can expect his throwing to be most impaired. That’s also his bottom hand, which works as the pivot point in a swing, more responsible for directing the bat to the ball. The top hand provides more rotation, for a more square kind of contact. For a player who depends on bat-to-ball skills as the foundation of his offense, it’s not likely that the Yankees would gamble this way, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Sanchez – C
Voit – 1B
Torres – 2B
Hechavarria – SS
Andujar – 3B
Stanton – LF
Hicks – CF
Judge – RF
Didi - DH

With Didi at DH, that means the Yankees need a spot for Stanton. He’d certainly get the nod over McCutchen in left, but that means that one of the Yankees’ best hitters in September is on the bench. Not only is McCutchen just plain good, but he’s taken extremely well to a leadoff spot, walking more than he’s struck out since joining the team.

This plan only really works on two conditions. First, the Yankees have to be confident that Didi would be a significantly better offensive option than Hechavarria, and probably than Walker. There would be no point in putting two black holes in the lineup in a game so important. Second the combination of Didi at the DH spot plus Stanton in left has to be worth more runs, offensively and defensively, than the combination of Stanton the DH and McCutchen the left fielder. Given Cutch’s success with the Yankees and Didi’s particular injury, I have a hard time believing that to be the case.

Essentially, if Didi can’t play, he can’t play. I don’t think there’s enough value in forcing him back if he’s not healthy enough to field; there’s just not enough lineup spots available. Either Gregorius is healthy enough to hit and play short, or he’s out of the game completely.

That decision is going to be chiefly made by the Yankees’ medical team, of course, and that play or not play call will affect whether the Yankees go with an offense first or defense first lineup. The team’s intentions will also get clearer once a starting pitcher is named, and what the lineups look like when Didi’s out.

If Luis Severino starts the Wild Card Game, I think an offense-based lineup is more likely. Severino is the best Yankee pitcher at suppressing contact, and he gives up fewer ground balls than anyone else in the rotation. A high strikeout total means that the defense can take a lesser role, perhaps opening the door for Torres and Walker up the middle. If J.A. Happ is named starter, he doesn’t strike out nearly as many hitters, making defense more of a priority. Masahiro Tanaka fits in between Severino and Happ in terms of strikeouts, so the Yankees could go either way.

There’s also a happy medium the Yankees could strike by putting Ronald Torreyes in the lineup for the Wild Card Game. He’s not as good a hitter as Walker, but a better fielder. He’s not as good with the glove as Hechavarria, but a better bat. He might be the perfect balance between the two, and would likely slide into second, giving Torres the start at short due to Gleyber’s better arm.

Having said that, Toe seemingly has been relegated out of work with this iteration of the Yankees, having not taken a plate appearance since August 31. On top of that, he seems to no longer be the go-to defensive replacement, getting only four innings of work in the field since Hechavarria’s acquisition. It seems the Toe-night Show is on hiatus for the time being, and one wonders if Torreyes will be on the playoff roster at all.

The lineups for the final week of games could give a clue to the Yankee intentions as well. Walker has struggled as a bit player, and his best offensive output matches almost perfectly with the stretches where he gets regular playing time. If Boone pencils Walker in for starts against the Rays and Red Sox, it’s a good bet he’ll get the start against Oakland as well.

Losing a player of Gregorius’ caliber for any length of time is pretty crushing. The Yankees are still in a fight for playoff seeding, and so they have to plan for a Didi-less lineup next Wednesday. Any lineup without him is weaker for it. All the Yankees can do in the meantime is hope for a sufficient recovery.