When Gleyber Torres first reached the major leagues almost three years ago, it seemed he could do no wrong. He achieved a signature moment within weeks, stroking a walk off home run against Cleveland, and a month into his career he ranked among the league leaders in OPS. The sky was the limit.
It’d be harsh to say the shine has come off Torres after a good-not-great 2019 and a down 2020, but the limit seems lower than the stratosphere now. He’s been more a first-division starter than a superstar as a Yankee, and career worsts across the board left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths last year. As he enters his prime, can Torres get back on track and take the steps toward stardom?
2020 Stats: 160 PA, .243/.356/.368, 3 HR, 16 RBI, 17.5 K%, 13.8 BB%, 106 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 637 PA, .278/.357/.511, 34 HR, 106 RBI, 20.0% K%, 10.4% BB%, 127 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR
Torres has two pretty straightforward paths to elite status: either shore up his faults in becoming an all-around great player, or become so dominant at what he does best that those faults don’t matter. Both are plausible, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which is more likely.
As to Torres’ flaws, his defense up the middle has emerged as a problem. Advanced defensive stats often show divergent results, yet they all find a consensus when it comes to Torres’ glove. He’s rated well below average at second and short by both UZR and DRS. Statcast’s outs above average ranks Torres towards the bottom of the league. By the eye test, a good arm is not enough to compensate for Torres’ subpar lateral quickness and shaky hands. Error-prone and slow does not an excellent shortstop make.
Is there any hope for improvement? Torres himself has expressed some confidence, telling reporters, “during the offseason, I prepared myself to be more consistent on defense. It’s happened already. I’m focused now on being ready for each pitch.” And as Tom noted in his offseason analysis of Torres’ defense, it’s not unheard of for middle infielders to progress as defenders. Marcus Semien once rated poorly by all metrics but now is regarded as rock solid up the middle. Paul DeJong was rated as a negative on defense as a prospect but blossomed into a plus a couple seasons into his career. Trevor Story ranked below average by OAA and UZR in 2018 but now stands among the very best defenders in the game.
Can we expect Torres to turn into Andrelton Simmons overnight? No, but it is at least possible he’ll sharpen his skills on the dirt. Some confluence of improved quickness, steadier hands and savvy positioning could theoretically transform Torres into solid at short. A version of Torres that’s good on defense and hits his career averages on offense could easily approach a six-WAR campaign.
Should Torres’ defense remain poor, he’d have to slug his way to stardom. In truth, this might be the more feasible path. Whereas we must speculate as to the ways he could improve at short, there’s no speculation required at the plate. Torres has shown us he can do most everything; he just needs to put it all together at once.
Torres posted a 122 OPS+ as a 21-year-old rookie. At 22, he smashed 38 dingers and slugged .535. At 23, he nearly doubled his walk rate, taking free passes in over 15-percent of his plate appearances, including playoffs. Torres had his ups and downs across 2020, but the blueprint is obvious. Torres’ power stroke from his first two seasons, combined with the discipline he showed last year, would mean elite offensive production.
The projections buy some of Torres’ improved on-base ability, forecasting career highs in both OBP and wOBA. Hitting those projections would make Torres All-Star caliber, notwithstanding any strides on defense. If Torres retains all of his plate discipline gains and recaptures his power, he could generate down-ballot MVP support. There just aren't many middle infielders that can reach base at a high clip and hit 35 bombs.
The extent to which Torres keeps walking the way he did in 2020, and whether he can shore up his defense, will shape his 2021 and his career trajectory. He’s at something of a pivot point now, having shown all kinds of strengths and weaknesses, but leaving in question which of those pluses and minuses he’ll retain into his prime.
Torres could do nothing but hit his career averages and remain a high-level starter. He could just as easily coalesce his various skills and emerge a superstar. Torres certainly isn’t running out of time to break out, but each passing year makes it less likely he’ll hit his ceiling as a top-tier position player. At age-24, this season feels like it will go a long way toward determining which path Torres ultimately takes. With any luck, in a few months, 2020 will seem a distant memory, with the Yankees once again penciling in a star as their everyday shortstop.