As other infield options fade away, the Yankees’ most likely course of action this offseason remains to re-sign DJ LeMahieu to serve as the club’s primary second baseman. It’s not really a hard choice — he’s been the team’s best player the last two years, has developed into a clubhouse leader, and would leave a massive hole to fill should he depart.
The longer the LeMahieu saga drags out though, the longer questions about Gleyber Torres will persist. There was one potential avenue for the Yankees to let LeMahieu go and make an upgrade — trading for Francisco Lindor. The Yankees ultimately didn’t make the move for financial reasons, and as we’ve analyzed, this makes a reunion with LeMahieu more likely. The signing would further entrench Torres at shortstop, and close off that second base safety net that always pops up whenever Torres’ long-term future at short is discussed.
Although Torres was developed as a shortstop, he first contributed to the Yankees as a second baseman due to the presence of Didi Gregorius. In his rookie year, Torres graded out far better at second than at short. He was worth -2 defensive runs saved at short that year in a brief 152 innings, but actually saved five runs in over 900 innings at second base. It remains the only time Torres has graded out positively at any position for a significant amount of time.
In 2019, Torres saw much more time at shortstop, and actually graded better there. In 659 innings at short, he was only slightly below average, turning in a -1 DRS and a career-best .747 RZR — this is the percent of balls that Torres made plays on when they were hit “in his zone.” That year at second, Torres had a difficult time, making seven throwing errors in 65 games, turning in a career-worst .629 RZR and a putrid -12 DRS. This development, along with his breakout offensive season, was key in the Yankees pushing Gregorius out the door and proclaiming Torres the full-time shortstop, with LeMahieu at second.
But of course in 2020, that all came undone. Torres played exclusively at short this year, but more time at his natural position didn’t have the same benefits it did in 2019. He was worth -9 DRS in just 320 innings and struggled with his range. As our own Cooper Halpern pointed out in his October piece on Torres’s defensive woes, Torres’s main issue is going to his right. His piece has more of a film-oriented breakdown of Torres’s struggles, so check that out here if you need a refresher.
The big takeaway from this trip down memory lane is that there’s little evidence to suggest that Torres is actually any better at second base than shortstop. He has similar issues fielding both positions that will need to be corrected. With that in mind, the Yankees shouldn’t dedicate their offseason to finding a cheap “defensive shortstop” so that Torres can supposedly blossom at second base. I’m not sure that playing second would actually benefit Torres that much, and whoever they scoop up would likely be an inferior player to LeMahieu.
This makes re-signing LeMahieu and riding with Torres at shortstop the best option for the Yankees. That means that Torres is going to have to make an improvement at shortstop, and other MLB comps show that there is a chance of this happening. Fernando Tatis Jr. was ranked third-worst among shortstops in Statcast’s “Outs Above Average” (OAA) figure in 2019, but led baseball in OAA in 2020 due to a marked improvement on his lateral range. Marcus Semien is no one’s idea of a great defender at short, but he shook off a brutal 35-error season in 2015 to post a combined 26 DRS in 2018-19. Amed Rosario and Jorge Polanco bounced back from poor 2019 defensive seasons to average 2020 campaigns. Now, just because these players made the leap doesn’t mean that Torres will, but it’s proof that it is possible to improve in the field year-to-year at one of the game’s most demanding positions.
Given Torres’ terrific offensive abilities, the team doesn’t need him to be a Gold Glover at short. If he can just put up average defensive value to go with his hitting, he’ll be a sneaky MVP candidate. With the Yankees running low on other options at shortstop, it appears it will be Torres’ job once again. After starting the 2020 season out of shape and enduring his worst year in the bigs so far, the Yankees will be counting on a major bounceback from their All-Star infielder.