A career year for the powerful, tweet-happy shortstop [2017 Season Review]

(Al Bello/Getty Images)
(Al Bello/Getty Images)

After a strong 2016 season, it wasn’t certain whether Didi Gregorius was going to maintain his powerful breakout or return to Earth. Well, he maintained … and then some. The Yankees’ shortstop put together the best offensive year of his career to go with a defensive bounceback, culminating in career-year.

Strong from the start

Gregorius injured his shoulder while preparing for the last round of the World Baseball Classic and missed all but three games in April. The Yankees were forced to fill in with Ronald Torreyes and Pete Kozma (remember him?) for a few weeks until Didi was back in the fold.

In his first game back — which just so happened to be the crazy 14-11 comeback vs. the Orioles — Gregorius reminded everyone of his defensive prowess by making a diving stop in the second inning.

He hit for very little power in his first few weeks back, finally hitting a home run in his 11th game.

(Fangraphs)
(Fangraphs)

Whether there were lingering effects from his shoulder strain is unclear, but he maintained a high average, batting .307 through the end of May. He had begun to pull the ball more and had some balls fall in, but it was unclear how sustainable his success was.

Heart of the lineup again

As the temperature heated up, so did Didi. He primarily batted in the bottom third of the order up until the end of June, when injuries and his solid performance prompted a move towards the middle.

This wasn’t necessarily expected despite him finishing 2016 by often hitting cleanup. Yet he justified it with his powerful bat. I detailed just before the postseason how he adjusted to lift the ball more and take advantage of Yankee Stadium as well as the potential juiced baseball.

You can see in the ISO chart above that he really peaked near the trade deadline and at the very end of the season. At the end of July, he had four home runs in a three-game span and followed that up in September with homers of three consecutive days against the Orioles. He finished the year with a career-best 25 home runs and .191 ISO while having just two fewer extra-base hits than 2016 in 17 fewer games.

Improvements in the field

Defensive metrics were down on Gregorius in 2016, but they rated him as a strong fielder again in 2017. It seemed like he made fewer mistakes on routine balls while still making some of the spectacular plays he usually gets.

Overall, in about 130 fewer innings, he committed six fewer errors. Not bad! Ultimately, outside of Brett Gardner, he’s probably the guy to whom you want the opposing team hitting the ball. While he wasn’t a Gold Glove finalist, he was still as sure-handed as ever. Perhaps more so.

Tweets and sideline reporting

Just a quick aside, but how much fun was it watching Didi when he wasn’t playing? He’s a delight. The post-win tweets were the perfect cap to all 98 wins in 2017 and it became an intriguing guessing game to figure out how each emoji represented each new player.

However, the best thing may have been the post-home run interviews in the dugout. The team took the lead of the Cubs and others and took it the stratosphere, making the interviews complexly laid out with a YES microphone flag to boot. Gotta love The Toe-night Show.

While Gregorius may not be an 80-grade celebration specialist like Yasiel Puig, he’s high up there. At least a 70.

Let's flash to Corey Kluber's nightmares (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Let’s flash to Corey Kluber’s nightmares (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Three homers in October

Gregorius had some big moments in the regular season sprinkled among his defensive gems, 25 home runs and myriad of multi-hit games. But he shined brightest by arguably hitting the three biggest home runs of the Yankees season. If not THE biggest, then certainly three of the top five.

It’s pretty hard to forget the three-run homer in the first inning to tie up the Wild Card Game. He fought back against Ervin Santana to force a 3-2 count and pounced on a fastball over the heart of the plate and drove it into a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd.

Honestly, that would have been enough out of him for the postseason. That hit propelled the Yankees into the ALDS and avoided a shameful offseason of rehashing a loss to a lesser Twins squad. It’s the type of hit that justified his spot in the order.

But he wasn’t done. He hit a pair of homers off inside pitches from presumed AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in ALDS Game 5 — another winner-take-all masterpiece. (Side note: AL pitchers, stop going inside on Didi. He’ll burn you to a crisp.) That was enough to put the Yankees into the ALCS in remarkable fashion.

The trio of homers leaves a perfect imprint on Didi’s season, announcing loud and clear his transformation into a middle-of-the-order hitter. He came up clutch in the ALCS (the triple and single in the Game 4 comeback come to mind), but in the fashion of 2017 baseball, his home runs stand out.

2018 Outlook

He’s shown his power is sustainable as long as current environment holds together. But more importantly, he’s displayed that he’ll be a key part of the core. He doesn’t have to be looking over his shoulder at Gleyber Torres and has probably cemented himself as the shortstop for a while, meriting consideration for a contract extension.

As crazy as it may have sounded before this year or when the Yankees acquired him, he could be a 30-HR SS in 2018. Get excited. We may not have seen peak Sir Mariekson Julius Gregorius yet.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 6th, 2017

Regular Season Record: 91-71 (858 RS, 660 RA, 100-62 pythag. record), second in ALE
Postseason Record: 7-6 (51 RS, 42 RA), won AL WC Game, won ALDS, lost ALCS

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
View Results

Weekend Open Thread

The first weekend without baseball since February. I forgot how much these stink. Once the hot stove heats up things will be more lively. Right now we’re in that post-World Series/pre-free agency lull. Anyway, I only have two links to pass along this weekend:

Friday: Here is an open thread for the night. The Knicks, Nets, and Devils are all playing tonight, and that’s pretty much it. Anything except religion or politics is fair game here.

Saturday: This is the open thread again. If you’re jonesin’ for some baseball, the Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game is on tonight (8pm ET on MLB Network). Justus Sheffield, Thairo Estrada, and Billy McKinney will play in the game. (McKinney won the fan voting for the final spot.) Also, the (hockey) Rangers are playing, and you’ve got all the day’s college football action as well.

Sunday: For one last time, this is the open thread. The Knicks, Islanders, and Devils are all playing tonight, plus there’s all the day’s NFL talk action. Have at it.

The Domino Effect

(New York Post)
(The face I made when my wife read me a tweet saying Tanaka would be back/New York Post)

All week I was preparing myself for the inevitable announcement that Masahiro Tanaka would opt out of his contract with the Yankees, leaving them with a big hole in the rotation. I had visions of a rotation without Tanaka and without CC Sabathia to balance the end, leaving the Yankees with only Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, and….who knows what else? Granted, the Yankees have come into years with rotations featuring way less than a top-3 Cy Young finisher, a solid veteran, and a promising youngster, it still wasn’t, as a former manager ’round here might say, what you want. Then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t leaving. He was coming back. He is coming back. And positivity falls into place.

Worst case scenario now, the Yankees are only looking to fill one rotation spot, and only if they opt not to give CC Sabathia the Andy Pettitte treatment, which he’s definitely earned. The best case scenario stays the same, though, as unlikely as it may be. That includes the Yankees retaining Sabathia and also landing the (potential) prize of the offseason, Shohei Otani. Yes, this would give the Yankees six starters, but as we’ve seen–hell, just look to Queens–pitching depth can disappear in the rotation of a pitch. Stocking up on starters is always a team’s best case scenario.

Even without Otani, a rotation of Severino, Tanaka, Gray, Montgomery, and Sabathia is formidable. Throw in a full season of Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson, a hopefully resurgent Dellin Betances, a healthy Adam Warren and Chad Green, and normal Aroldis Chapman and the Yankees could challenge anyone for the best pitching staff in baseball.

As he does when he pitches, Tanaka has–with this decision–inspired confidence in me for 2018. Sure, that confidence was there given the success of the team this year, but Tanaka helps push that over the edge. Starting pitching has been a weakness of the Yankees heading into the season for…many years and now, that’s not the case, regardless of what happens with CC.

A pitching staff makes, like dominoes do, things fall into place. A strong rotation gives the Yankees balance to their potent lineup. Now, as they did for parts of last year, they have a rotation and a bullpen to buoy them when the lineup goes through slumps and a lineup to push through the wall when the rotation has an off week.

Would or could all of this be true without Tanaka? Sure, they could’ve found someone to replace him and not necessarily missed a beat or a step. But I’m more fond of and confident in Tanaka than I would be or would have been in any sort of replacement for him. Is that a case of blinders or pinstripe-tinted glasses? Maybe, sure. But all I know is I’m damn glad Tanaka is going to be with the Yankees for the next few years, and I hope you are, too. Welcome home, Masa, even if you never left.

Saturday Links: Otani, League Top 20 Prospects, Cessa

The most fun player on Earth. (Getty)
The most fun player on Earth. (Getty)

The offseason is off to a pretty good start. Last night we learned Masahiro Tanaka will not opt-out of his contract, and instead give the Yankees his age 29-31 seasons for $67M. Not bad. Not bad at all. Now the Yankees can now move on to other things, like finding a new manager. Here are some notes and links to check out.

Otani’s move on hold while MLB, MLBPA, NPB haggle

According to Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman, Shohei Otani’s move to the big leagues is on hold while MLB, MLBPA, and NPB haggle over the posting agreement. The posting agreement expired last month, though MLB and NPB agreed Otani would be grandfathered in under the old agreement, meaning the Nippon Ham Fighters would still get the $20M release fee. The players’ union doesn’t like that arrangement. From Sherman:

But MLB cannot enter into any transfer agreement with any country — Japan, Korea, Cuba, Mexico, etc. — without approval from the MLB Players Association, as stated in the CBA. And the union, to date, has refused to make an exception for Otani, concerned about the precedent and fairness of the player receiving, say, $300,000 and his former team $20 million.

Under the international hard cap Otani can only receive a small bonus — the Yankees and Rangers reportedly have the most bonus money to offer at $2.5M or so — and sign a minor league contract, which is nothing. He’s getting screwed beyond belief, financially. I get why MLBPA doesn’t want to set this precedent, but maybe do something about it during Collective Bargaining Agreement talks? It’s a little too late now. You agreed to the hard cap, you dolts.

Anyway, my guess is Otani will indeed end up coming over at some point this winter. It seems like he really wants to despite the hard cap. So far this Otani stuff is following a similar path as the Tanaka stuff a few years ago. He wants to come over, oh no his team might not post him, now MLB and the NPB are at an impasse during posting system talks … blah blah blah. Same story, different year.

Otani undergoes ankle surgery

Oh, by the way, Otani had ankle surgery last month, according to the Kyodo News. The ankle had been bothering him since late last year, when he rolled it running through first base in October. He then reaggravated it in November. The ankle injury as well as a nagging quad problem limited Otani to only 231 plate appearances (.332/.403/.540) and 25.1 innings (3.20 ERA and 10.3 K/9) in 2017.

The surgery comes with a three-month rehab, meaning Otani is expected to be back on his feet by January. That could throw a wrench into his offseason workout routine. Obviously the surgery is a red flag and something MLB teams must consider when pursuing him, but given the nature of the injury — rolling your ankle while running through first base is kinda fluky — and the fact his arm is sound leads me to believe it won’t hurt his market at all. It could mean Otani is brought along a little more slowly in Spring Training, however.

More Yankees among BA’s league top 20 prospects

Florial. (Rob Carr/Getty)
Florial. (Rob Carr/Getty)

It just dawned on me that I never passed along Baseball America’s remaining league top 20 prospect lists. I did post Triple-A, Double-A, and High-A, but that’s all. There are still four more levels to cover, and many Yankees prospects. Let’s get to them quick:

  • OF Estevan Florial (Low-A No. 2): “He’s a higher-risk, high ceiling prospect who has further refinement to come, but special tools.”
  • RHP Jorge Guzman (NYPL No. 2): “(The) 21-year-old took a big step forward as a pitcher this year … He mixed in his curveball and changeup more regularly, which only made his plus-plus fastball more effective.”
  • RHP Trevor Stephan (NYPL No. 9): “Stephan sat 92-94 mph but touched 95-96 regularly. His slider got plenty of swings and misses thanks to his ability to bury it.”
  • RHP Juan De Paula (NYPL No. 14): “De Paula was one of the more skilled pitchers in the league, showing an ability to control the strike zone and throw in and out, up and down, raising and lowering hitters’ eye levels and never letting them get real comfortable in the batter’s box.”
  • IF Oswaldo Cabrera (NYPL No. 16): “Managers and scouts felt confident about Cabrera’s ability to hit for average and get on base … Scouts are concerned that Cabrera’s tools are more modest than his work ethic and feel for the game.”
  • RHP Luis Medina (Appy No. 6): “Medina’s upside is enormous. He attacks hitters with a true 80-grade fastball on the 20-80 scouting scale and sits anywhere from 96-100 mph … Medina pairs his heater with two potentially above-average secondaries. His curveball works in an 11-to-5 arc and is his preferred knockout pitch, whereas his changeup lags a little behind.”
  • RHP Deivi Garcia (Appy No. 15): “Garcia’s fastball sits in the low 90s and touches as high as 96 mph … His curveball is nearing plus status and boasts high spin rates and firm shape.”
  • SS Oswald Peraza (GCL No. 14): “Peraza is a smart, savvy player and a good athlete. He has a smooth, efficient stroke, good bat-to-ball skills and manages his at-bats well with a good sense for the strike zone.”
  • SS Jose Devers (GCL No. 19): “Devers’ glove is ahead of his bat, but he held his own against older competition in the GCL, showing a sound swing and contact skills, though without much power.”

In the Appalachian League chat, 3B Dermis Garcia was called “a very divisive player” because his pitch recognition isn’t great and he’ll probably end up at first base, but “(on) the flip side, he’s got enormous raw power and a strong throwing arm.” Also, OF Blake Rutherford placed 18th on the Low-A South Atlantic League list. Eek. Hopefully he bounces back next year. Rutherford’s a good dude.

Cessa activated off 60-day DL

A small transaction to note: Luis Cessa was activated off the 60-day DL yesterday, the Yankees announced. The Yankees now have four open spots on the 40-man roster. They’re going to go to Rule 5 Draft eligible prospects later this month. Chances are the Yankees will have to open a few more 40-man spots, in fact. Cessa, 25, had a 4.75 ERA (5.75 FIP) in 36 swingman innings this year before going down with a rib cage injury. I like him more than most. I think Cessa has a chance to be a nice little back-end starter and soon.

Not opting out: Masahiro Tanaka decides to stay with Yankees

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

The biggest question of the offseason has been answered. Masahiro Tanaka is staying in New York.

Friday night Tanaka announced he will not opt out of the final three years and $67M remaining on his contract with the Yankees. The deadline to opt-out was Saturday night. Here is Tanaka’s statement:

“I have decided to stay with the Yankees for the next three seasons. It was a simple decision for me as I have truly enjoyed the past four years playing for this organization and for the wonderful fans of New York.

“I’m excited to continue to be a part of this team, and I’m committed to our goal of bringing a World Series Championship back to the Steinbrenner family, the Yankees organization, and the great fans of New York.”

This really surprises me. I’ve been saying that, as long as he’s healthy, Tanaka would opt-out basically since the day the Yankees signed him. And I know I’m not the only one who felt that way. Most RAB readers expected him to opt-out. My guess is either Tanaka really loves New York, the Yankees took a hard line and said they wouldn’t re-sign him if he opts out, or Tanaka is really worried about The Elbow™. Maybe some combination of all three.

So, rather than worry about finding another starting pitcher this offseason, the Yankees will get Tanaka’s age 29-31 seasons for $67M total. That is a pretty great deal. Any contender would’ve signed him to that this offseason, preferring to trade the higher average annual value for fewer years. Based on my rough numbers, the Yankees still have roughly $33M to spend this winter before hitting the $197M luxury tax threshold.

Tanaka, who turned 29 this past Wednesday, had his worst season with the Yankees in 2017. He had a 4.74 ERA (4.34 FIP) in 178.1 innings, though he was much better in the second half (3.77 ERA and 3.41 FIP) than the first (5.47 ERA and 5.04 FIP). And, of course, Tanaka was brilliant in the postseason, allowing two runs in 20 total innings in his three starts. That includes seven shutout innings against the Indians with the season on the line in Game Three of the ALDS.

The Yankees now know they’ll go into next season with Tanaka, Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery in their starting rotation. CC Sabathia is a free agent and it stands to reason the team will try to bring him back on a short-term contract. The Yankees don’t figure to spend much on a fifth starter either way, Sabathia or no Sabathia. Luis Cessa, Domingo German, and Chance Adams are then the Triple-A depth arms.

For now, the Yankees don’t have to worry about re-signing or replacing Tanaka. They’ve got the real thing. The Yankees are ready to win right now, they showed it this season, and getting the 2014-16 versions of Tanaka will make this club that much more dangerous in 2018. Welcome back, Masahiro.

Update: Yankees name Kevin Reese new farm system head

Reese during his playing days. (Getty)
Reese during his playing days. (Getty)

Friday: The Yankees announced Reese’s move this morning. His official title is senior director of player development. There’s no word yet on who will replace him as the head of the pro scouting department.

Thursday: According to George King, the Yankees will name Kevin Reese their new farm system head, replacing the departed Gary Denbo. Denbo ran the farm system from 2015-17 before leaving to join Derek Jeter and the Marlins last month. The Yankees have not yet officially announced Reese as the player development chief. I imagine it’ll happen soon.

Reese, 39, spent the 2002-07 seasons as a depth outfielder in the farm system, and he did manage to appear in 12 games with the Yankees from 2005-06. He joined the club as a scout in 2008 and has gradually worked his way up the ladder. Most recently, Reese was the director of pro scouting. He took over the department when Billy Eppler left to join the Angels.

Over the last three years Denbo turned the farm system into a player development machine after it’d been unproductive for years under Mark Newman. It’s not just the Aaron Judges and Gary Sanchezes and Luis Severinos. Others like Jordan Montgomery are quite valuable too. Now Reese will be in charge of making sure the pipeline remains productive. If nothing else, he still has a lot of talent to work with.

The Yankees reportedly interviewed four candidates to replace Denbo, all internal: Reese, director of minor league operations Eric Schmitt, director of performance science John Kremer, and field coordinator Carlos Mendoza. The Yankees tend to promote from within for these jobs. Now they have to replace Reese as the pro scouting department head, though I’m sure they have someone lined up.