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A look at the Yankees’ middle infield situation without Didi Gregorius

Gleyber Torres will be the starter at shortstop, but who will back him up?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Didi Gregorius era is officially over. After five years as the New York Yankees’ starting shortstop, the 29-year-old left via free agency to the Philadelphia Phillies on a one-year deal.

In those five years, Sir Didi proved to be an asset as a two-way player, with a very good glove and an offensive game that improved as his career went on. After being seen as a defensive specialist when he came from the Arizona Diamondbacks, he morphed into an annual 20-homer threat, a feat he achieved from 2016 to 2018.

Now, he is gone and left the position in good hands: his buddy Gleyber Torres will slide over from second base and handle shortstop duties on a regular basis, with DJ LeMahieu likely the starter at the keystone. However, the organization is in dire need of someone who can function as the backup middle infielder, capable of manning shortstop if something were to happen to Gleyber or if he needs a day off here or there.

The free agent route

Last season, the Yankees signed veteran shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to the veteran’s minimum in January. However, the scenario was different, as Gregorius was rehabbing and expected to miss at least a couple of months of the season. Tulo was, at least at one point, expected to start at shortstop until Didi returned.

Injuries, more specifically a nagging calf issue, took away any chance of success he had, and the Yankees changed course. This time around, any free agent signing won’t be expected to be the starter since Gleyber is locked and loaded as the everyday option at the position.

The market has several options the Yankees can consider if they want someone to compete with the internal options, which we will discuss shortly.

The recently non-tendered Tim Beckham doesn’t make much sense, since he is slated to miss several weeks of the season while serving a suspension. Jose Iglesias could be a fit but given his defensive prowess (11.9 fielding runs in 2019, according to FanGraphs) he could find a starting gig somewhere else.

A reunion with Adeiny Hechavarria could also be in the cards. He was actually decent at the plate last season, with a 93 wRC+ and nine home runs in 221 plate appearances, but it would make more sense for the Yankees to just try Thairo Estrada or Tyler Wade.

Other free agents capable of playing shortstop are Jordy Mercer, Starlin Castro (who had a sneaky good second half and could start on another team, but hasn’t played the position regularly in years) and Brock Holt, among others.

The in-house route

While it is likely that the Bombers bring a veteran pickup to compete with the “young blood,” the team would likely be better off letting Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada compete for backup middle infield duties.

Wade had a 136 wRC+ in Triple-A in 2017, but in the two subsequent seasons, he accumulated 95 and 99 marks at that level. In the majors, he had a 18 wRC+ in 2017 and a 30 mark in 2018, but he managed to improve to 88 this season. That’s still below-average, but it could work given his defensive versatility and baserunning prowess (2.5 base running runs per FanGraphs.)

Wade’s best position is second base, where he had a 1.0 UZR/150 and a 0.3 UZR in 122 innings, with 3 DRS in 2019. He also played a very good third base and right field in limited reps. His performance at shortstop wasn’t very good though (-37.8 UZR/150, -0.3 UZR in 20 frames).

Estrada, on the other hand, is highly regarded for his very good glove. He is a natural shortstop, which bodes well for his chances. The numbers didn’t quite back him up in 2019 (he had a -18.7 UZR/150 and a -0.6 UZR in 45 innings) but he has the tools to make it work in the long-term. He can also play second base.

Offensively, he posted identical 91 wRC+ marks in Triple-A and the majors. For a backup middle infielder, that could work as long as his defensive play improves.

Gio Urshela could also play shortstop in a pinch, but the last time he did it was in 2018 with the Toronto Blue Jays. The sample size wasn’t too large (65 frames) but the results weren’t particularly impressive (-19.0 UZR/150, -0.9 UZR, -3 DRS).

Overall, there aren’t many holes in the Yankees’ 2020 roster after the Gerrit Cole signing, other than a backup catcher and maybe some bullpen depth. The middle infield situation should be addressed, though. It will be important to know the team’s plan if something were to happen to Gleyber Torres.