The Yankees had to make a move to acquire a new shortstop for 2015. (Their previous shortstop retired, you might not have heard about it.) Once J.J. Hardy was prematurely plucked off the market thanks to a late extension by the Orioles, it didn't leave the Yankees with many appealing options. Hanley Ramirez? Not even considered a shortstop anymore and signed by the Red Sox. Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Everth Cabrera? Underwhelming. Stephen Drew? Ugh, not that experience again. Enter GM Brian Cashman, another Yankees- Tigers - Diamondbacks three-team swing, and soon-to-be 25-year-old Didi Gregorius.*
*That's Gregorius, not Gregorious or Gregarious. It's surely a name destined for spelling doom, like Mark Teixeira and Andy Pettitte.
With the trade for Gregorius, the Yankees' shortstop situation has finally been addressed for the immediate future, so now all fans can do until Opening Day on April 6th is think about the potential the young shortstop has to offer. The 13th Netherlands-born player in baseball history, Gregorius, whose real name is Mariekson Julius Gregorius, was signed by the Reds as a 17-year-old in 2007. He came from a baseball family, as his father, also known as Didi despite not actually being named Didi (nicknames are weird), played in the Netherlands' top league for several years, as did Gregorius's older brother, Johnny. The younger Didi was the first to sign with an American team though, as Reds scout Jim Stoeckel, who had previously coached Dutch national teams, was impressed enough by Gregorius's play in his home of Curacao to sign him for $50,000.
It did not take long for Gregorius to rise through the Reds' system, as both his defense and his bat proved to be superior to most of his shortstop competition. This success culminated in a terrific 2012 campaign split with Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Louisville, where he combined to hit .264/.324/.393 with 21 doubles, 11 triples, and seven homers in 129 games. The Reds decided to reward him with a call-up in September, when he made his major league debut and notched his first career hit. After the season, MLB.com dubbed him the 63rd-ranked prospect in baseball, and Baseball America put him at #80 on their list and fifth on the Reds' Top 10 Prospects. BA also noted that Gregorius had "has smooth actions, plus range and a sniper rifle of an arm," and was the best defensive infielder in the Reds' system.
With Gregorius's stock rising, he was no secret anymore, and the Diamondbacks made a play to get him during the off-season. On December 11, 2012, Gregorius was involved in the first three-team trade of his career, as in a nine-player swap, he went to the Diamondbacks, Shin-Soo Choo went to the Reds, and Trevor Bauer went to the Indians (among others). Arizona GM Kevin Towers said that Gregorius reminded him of a young Jeter, which was just an embarrassing quote on his part. Nonetheless, Gregorius recovered from an early-season elbow sprain to hit .252/.332/.373 with 16 doubles, seven homers, and a 92 wRC+ in 103 games, a fine rookie showing for a 23-year-old shortstop. (He also hit his first career homer in Yankees Stadium, a fun bonus to this trade. Warning: Clip contains Phil Hughes meatball.]) Although publicly available defensive metrics haven't been quite as impressed with him as scouts, Gregorius has demonstrated his skill on several plays:
Whoa. Range at shortstop is probably a foreign concept to many Yankees fans at this point, but from these plays, it sure seems like Gregorius will provide some serious ability there that fans haven't seen in quite some time. Again, while the publicly available metrics don't like him as much, the Yankees' internal analysts are getting paid to research this kind of advanced stuff with technology beyond the capabilities of UZR, FRAA, and DRS. If they like his defense, then that's good enough for me to have confidence in Gregorius's skills with the glove.
Unfortunately for Gregorius in 2014, the Diamondbacks were lucky enough to have a second shortstop prospect rise to the majors and ultimately usurp Gregorius on the depth chart. A year and half younger than Gregorius, Chris Owings took the job and hit .261/.300/.406 with a 92 wRC+ in 91 games, numbers that were actually quite similar to Gregorius's 2013, but Gregorius did not hit quite as well, slumping to a .226/.290/.363 triple slash and a 76 wRC+. Keeping both shortstops became superfluous, especially since neither hit well enough to really be used much at another position. Thus, the Diamondbacks were actively shopping Gregorius, and they found a way to use him to improve themselves through yesterday's three-team trade.
Now, the Yankees have a new shortstop. It's early on and not all the projection systems are out, but FanGraphs Steamer says that Gregorius will hit about .248/.310/.366 with 12 doubles, six homers, and an 88 wRC+ in 146 games. That would be just fine for his first year in pinstripes. Even a replication of his 2013 performance would be a big improvement on Jeter's sluggish finale in 2014. Hell, Gregorius's .363 slugging percentage in 2014 was 50 points higher than Jeter, and he contributed far better defense. As much as some Yankees fans might be reluctant to admit it, the 25-year-old Gregorius will be a step up for the Bronx Bombers. This chart from ESPN's Mark Simon offers some reason for hope as well:
Didi Gregorius was one of 34 players to have hard-hit rate of at least 20% in 2014 And look who he ranks between! pic.twitter.com/n0ws710eNz— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) December 5, 2014
As Cashman said yesterday in a conference call, Didi is not a finished product, and they are hoping he will develop further with the bat. It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Gregorius is obviously nowhere near the defensive other-worldliness of Ozzie Smith, but it's worth noting that in Smith's first full season, he hit just .258/.311/.312 with an 84 wRC+. In his sophomore season, he got even worse, far more ugly than Gregorius in 2014: .211/.260/.262 with a 47 (!) wRC+ in 1979. Remarkable, even for the lower offensive standards of '79. However, eventually his bat slowly improved enough to reach solid levels eight times in nine years from 1984-92 (.278/.360/.348 with a 99 OPS+ overall in that period).
The Yankees are hopeful that it won't take Gregorius that long to reach respectability levels with the bat, and there's certainly reason to believe that will not be the case. Here's hoping for a fun debut season from Didi--I'm certainly looking forward to it.