New additions will help Yankees against pitches down in the zone

Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)
Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)

As first explained by Jon Roegele last January and revisited by Jeff Sullivan in September, the strike zone has been expanding in recent years. It is expanding downward, specifically. There are more called strikes at the knees and below nowadays than there were a few years ago for whatever reason. Pitchers have been taught to keep the ball down for decades, and now there is even more of an incentive to do so. It’s hard to do anything with pitches down in the zone.

As a result, some teams have started seeking out low-ball hitters to counter the expanding strike zone. Josh Donaldson, who went from the Athletics to the Blue Jays this offseason, is one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, putting up a .273 AVG and .180 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below the last two years. The MLB averages were .230 and .103, respectively. The best low-ball hitter in baseball the last three seasons has been (who else?) Mike Trout, with a .343 AVG and .229 ISO.

Last season, the Yankees as a team hit .229 with a .101 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below, the 17th and 15th best rates in baseball, respectively. The MLB averages in 2014 were a .232 AVG and .103 ISO. Keep in mind those are raw AVG and ISO numbers, unadjusted for ballpark or anything like that. The Yankees were a below-average hitting team on pitches down in the zone despite playing home games in hitter happy Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees have remade their lineup a bit this offseason, at least compared to the Opening Day lineup a year ago. They have a new projected starters at the three non-first base infield positions plus a new primary DH regardless of whether Alex Rodriguez or Garrett Jones gets the majority of the at-bats. Let’s look at how the current roster has performed on pitches down in the zone the last three seasons, with an enormous thanks to the indispensable Baseball Savant.

The Infielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
C Brian McCann .219 .148 .236 18.5%
1B Mark Teixeira .193 .147 .225 23.4%
2B Stephen Drew .179 .072 .276 33.7%
SS Didi Gregorius .245 .115 .286 17.5%
3B Chase Headley .225 .098 .318 28.5%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

I was curious to see Teixeira’s down in the zone stats before looking them up because, anecdotally, it seems like he’s a high-ball hitter based on what I’ve seen during his first six years in pinstripes. Sure enough, the data backs it up. Teixeira hit .193 with a .147 ISO on pitches down in the zone these last three years while hitting .268 with a .266 ISO on all other pitches. The MLB averages for pitches not down in the zone since 2012 are .273 AVG and .175 ISO, for reference.

Both Teixeira and McCann are power-before-average hitters, which is why they have a better than league average ISO but a below-average batting average on pitches in the bottom third of the zone and below. Headley has been below-average on low pitches but not by much, just a few points in both AVG and ISO. Remember, AVG and ISO are unadjusted and Headley spent most of the last three years in cavernous Petco Park. I expect these numbers to come up going forward. Drew … yikes. Let’s leave it at that.

Gregorius is interesting because he has actually been slightly above-average on hitting pitches low in the strike zone, though only slightly. On the other hand, he has hit .244 with a .134 ISO on pitches not down in the zone, below those .273 AVG and .175 ISO league averages. Seven of his 13 big league homers have come on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below — one of those seven is his first career homer (video), which came at Yankee Stadium off Phil Hughes in April 2013 — so it seems like Gregorius has some golf in his swing. That’s useful.

The Outfielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
LF Brett Gardner .229 .106 .306 25.6%
CF Jacoby Ellsbury .257 .108 .308 18.8%
RF Carlos Beltran .230 .121 .279 22.1%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

Ellsbury is a high contact hitter who consistently gets the fat part of the bat on the ball, so it’s no surprise he’s fared well on pitches down in the zone. The power production is only league average, but that’s not really his game. Gardner has been so close to being perfectly average on low pitches these last three years that it’s kinda freaky. He’s off the MLB average by one point of AVG, one point of ISO, and three-tenths of a percentage point in strikeout rate.

Beltran has been above-average low-ball hitter by virtue of having an average AVG with better than average ISO and strikeout rates. That said, the Beltran we saw last year was not the same Beltran the Cardinals had from 2012-13. During his two years in St. Louis, Beltran hit .237 with a .133 ISO on low pitches. Last year it was a .211 AVG with a .092 ISO. Hopefully that is just a function of playing through an elbow injury for most of the summer rather than a decline in skills. If that is the case, healthy Beltran is a real weapon against pitches down in the zone.

The Bench

AVG ISO BABIP K%
DH Alex Rodriguez .263 .180 .321 24.8%
C John Ryan Murphy .256 .070 .367 28.3%
IF Brendan Ryan .160 .050 .231 30.0%
OF Chris Young .158 .131 .210 31.0%
UTIL Garrett Jones .244 .157 .290 22.2%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

First things first, let’s just ignore Murphy’s numbers. He has only 112 plate appearances in the big leagues and fewer than 50 of them (46, to be exact) have ended on pitches down in the zone, so it’s a very small sample. Everyone else’s stats are based on a few hundred plate appearances that ended on low pitches.

Anyway, look at A-Rod! He flat out mashed low pitches from 2012-14, which really means he mashed low pitches from 2012-13 because he didn’t play last year. On the other side of the coin, he put up a .267 AVG with a .142 ISO against non-low pitches the last three seasons, both below-average rates. We have no idea what Alex can do next year at age 39 with two surgically repaired hips after missing all of 2014. If he puts up anything close to the 113 wRC+ he had from 2012-13, it would be a major win, low-ball hitter or not.

Jones has been a real threat against pitches down in the strike zone. His AVG, ISO and strikeout rate have been better than average the last three seasons. By comfortable margins too. I guess that’s not surprising — take a few minutes to watch this highlight video and it’s obvious Jones can go down to get a pitch and lift it a long way. Young has some pop on low pitches but is generally well-below-average. Ryan isn’t much of a hitter, low pitches or otherwise.

The additions of Gregorius and Jones figure to help the Yankees against pitches down in the zone in an age when more low strikes are being called and even more pitches are at the knees or below. Headley should also help now that he’s in a much more favorable park, and A-Rod is a wildcard. Maybe he’ll help but probably not. The Yankees weren’t a very good low-ball hitting team in 2014 and their additions this winter appear likely to help improve the situation this coming season.

Looking at the new left side of the infield using Inside Edge data

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With Derek Jeter retired and Alex Rodriguez basically a non-factor, the Yankees had to rebuild the left side of their infield this offseason, and they did that by trading for shortstop Didi Gregorius and re-signing third baseman Chase Headley. The Yankees are hoping those two will hold things down on the more glamorous side of second base for at least the next four years, the term of Headley’s deal. (Gregorius has five years of team control remaining.)

Headley performed very well during his limited time in pinstripes this past season while Gregorius has a little more than a full year of MLB time under his belt, so he’s more of an unknown. Both guys have similar profiles though — they’re defense-first players who do their best work catching baseballs, not hitting them. Headley’s been an average or better hitter basically his entire career, though his glove is his calling card. Gregorius definitely fits the all-glove, no-bat profile.

At the very least, the Yankees will have a much better infield defense next season, especially on the left side. How much better defensively? Substantially, really. On the order of two or three wins, I think. Maybe more. To get a better idea of just how improved the defense at short and third will be next season, let’s look at some Inside Edge data and compare the 2014 Yankees to the incoming Gregorius and returning Headley.

Shortstop

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Jeter was a disaster in the field this past season. I mean, he’s been below-average in the field pretty much his entire career, but the 2014 season was his worst defensively. The combination of age and his broken ankle late in 2012 sapped whatever mobility he had left, and his arm left something to be desired as well. The Cap’n put Mark Teixeira‘s scoop tool to work at first base this summer.

The Inside Edge data shows just how terrible New York’s defense at shortstop was during the 2014 season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 11.1% 35.3% 64.3% 95.3%
2014 MLB AVG 3.7% 24.1% 49.2% 74.1% 97.2%
2012-14 Gregorius 14.3% 25.0% 52.6% 69.2% 98.2%

Inside Edge is fairly straight forward. Batted balls are recorded by human stringers (so there is some scorer bias) and are split into six groups — the five in the table above plus “impossible,” which register at 0% league-wide — depending how difficult the play will be for the defender. For example, batted balls considered “likely” to be turned into an out are plays that are made 60-90% of the time, with the league average at 74.1%. Got it? Sure you do.

The 2014 Yankees, who had Jeter at short for 78.3% of their defensive innings, made no very difficult plays (“remote”) at shortstop and were comfortably below the league average when it came to making “unlikely,” “about even,” and “likely” plays. Long story short, anything not hit right to the shortstop was converted into an out at a considerably below-average rate. Jeter was that bad in the field. Everything was an adventure.

Gregorius, on the other hand, has been above-average at making every type of play since breaking into the league with the exception of “likely” plays, where he’s been a tick below-average but not Jeterian. Other young middle infielders like Adeiny Hechavarria and Dee Gordon have a similar Inside Edge profile and the thought is they have occasional lapses in concentration and botch the routine play. Tougher plays like “remote” and “unlikely” are all instinct. There’s no thinking.

In theory, those lapses in concentration can be fixed. Then again, they might not even be the problem. It’s just a theory. Baseball America has consistently ranked Gregorius among his organization’s top prospects throughout his minor league career, and over the years their defensive scouting reports have said “his hands are still somewhat erratic” (2010), “his hands are his biggest drawback defensively” (2011), and “he showed improved consistency (with his hands)” (2012). Hands that are “somewhat erratic” but showed “improved consistency” seem like the kind of thing that could contribute to his below-average rate of making “likely” plays.

Either way, the Yankees are getting a substantial defensive upgrade at short by replacing Jeter with Gregorius. Even with those bad hands or lapses in concentration or whatever, Gregorius has made plays at a much higher rate than Jeter these last few years, and it’s expected he will continue to do that going forward. His youth and athleticism mean Didi is more likely to improve going forward than crater and became a below-average gloveman. It’s been a very long time since the Yankees had an everyday shortstop as good as Gregorius defensively.

Third Base

Between the hobbled A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis and the defensively blah Jayson Nix, Yangervis Solarte, and Kelly Johnson, the Yankees have dealt with some really shaky hot corner play the last few years. Headley was a breath of fresh air after coming over at the trade deadline. He made every play he was supposed to make — that was an accomplishment for the 2014 Yankees — plus more than few highlight reel plays.

The Inside Edge data for the team’s third basemen this past season is pretty interesting:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 41.2% 76.9% 77.5% 95.8%
2014 MLB AVG 2.7% 25.9% 57.9% 76.5% 95.9%
2012-14 Headley 2.4% 22.0% 72.9% 85.6% 97.4%

According to Inside Edge, the Yankees were well-above-average at making “unlikely” and “about even” plays at third base in 2014 and basically average at “likely” and “almost certain” plays. When it came to making something more than the routine play, the 2014 Yankees were collectively better than the 2012-14 version of Headley.

Of course, the 2014 Yankees and 2012-14 Headley are not mutually exclusive since he did play a few hundred innings at third for New York this summer. Let’s compare Headley’s defense to the team’s other third baseman this past season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Non-Headley NYY 3B 0.0% 30.0% 75.0% 77.4% 94.2%
2014 Headley with NYY 0.0% 57.1% 80.0% 77.8% 99.1%

The team’s non-Headley third baseman were actually above-average at making non-routine plays and about average making “likely” and “almost certain” plays, so the hot corner defense wasn’t a total disaster. Headley, however, managed to improve on all of that across the board. So yeah, the Yankees were getting pretty good glovework at third, but Headley took it to another level.

Now, defense is like anything else in baseball, players can have good defensive years and bad defensive years. It’s like batting average. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .270 in 2008, then .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change those three years? No, that’s just baseball. The same applies to defense. The various defensive stats (not just Inside Edge) say 2014 was either the best or second best (behind 2010) defensive season of Headley career. He was still above-average from 2011-13, but not as good as 2014.

Given his track record, there’s a chance Headley’s defense going forward won’t be as good as it was this past season, and again, that isn’t to say it will be bad. To go back to Cano for an example, he hit .342 in 2006 and then .308 from 2007-14. He was awesome in 2006 and slightly less awesome from 2007-14. Headley’s defense was outstanding in 2014. It’ll probably be slightly less outstanding going forward, and that’s okay. As long as he continues to be above-average, he’ll be an upgrade on what the team was running out there the last two years.

Going from Jeter to Gregorius will be a substantial improvement for the 2015 Yankees. In fact, it might be the single biggest defensive upgrade at any position in baseball. Maybe second biggest behind the Allen Craig to Jason Heyward move the Cardinals made, but, either way, New York will be considerably better at short next year. They’ll be better at third base as well, just less so. With a ground ball-centric pitching staff, the improved defense on the left side of the infield figures to be very noticeable. It was an upgrade that had to be made.

Girardi Talks: Robertson, Bullpen, A-Rod, Rotation, Didi, Offseason, More

San Diego natives Ian Clarkin and Gosuke Katoh stopped by the Winter Meetings on Tuesday. (Photo via Ian Clarkin)
San Diego natives Ian Clarkin and Gosuke Katoh stopped by the Winter Meetings on Tuesday. (Photo via @iClarkin)

Yesterday afternoon Joe Girardi held his annual “state of the Yankees” press conference at the Winter Meetings. It was a fairly standard Yankees press conference, meaning lots of words were said but there wasn’t a whole lot of substance behind them. The organization has mastered the art of saying a lot and nothing at all at the same time, if you know what I mean. Here’s a recap of the important stuff from Girardi’s press conference with some thoughts as well.

David Robertson and the Bullpen

  • On losing Robertson: “Obviously we’re going to miss David … I’m happy for him because I feel like relievers usually get one shot at the long-term contract, and he got that shot and he took full advantage of it. And we’re going to miss him. He was a great young man to manage and had a lot of confidence in him. I wish him the best of luck, except against us.”
  • On the bullpen with Robertson: “Well, we feel that our bullpen is going to be very strong again. With the additions of (Andrew) Miller and (Justin) Wilson and the development of (Adam) Warren and (Shawn) Kelley, we feel like we have a number of great arms … I feel like we’ll have a very good bullpen.”
  • On naming a new closer: “We’ll talk about it as Spring Training goes on to see what is the best situation. I think you have to figure out who is in your bullpen. And the one thing is that we feel that — you look at four of the guys down there, (Dellin) Betances, Miller, Warren, Shawn Kelley, they all have significant amount of time in the back end and have been set up — so you could do probably a lot of different things. It could be dependent on how many days in a row a guy has worked. But like I said, we don’t need to figure that out (now). But I like the arms that we have down there.”
  • On bullpen roles in general: “I think it’s important they have an idea how they’re going to be used, but sometimes it takes time to develop that. When we started out this season Betances was pitching the fifth and sixth inning. In the end he was pitching sometimes the sixth, seventh inning. So that takes time to get ironed out.”

The Yankees have a great opportunity to use a co-closer system, with Betances and Miller sharing eighth and ninth inning duty based on matchups. The Braves did this with Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez a few years ago — Soriano (27 saves) faced the tough righties whenever they were due up and Gonzalez (ten saves) faced the tough lefties whenever they were due up. The Yankees could do similar but I think there’s no chance they will. Girardi likes having set roles — seventh inning guy, eighth inning guy, closer, etc. — and so do the players. Someone will replace Robertson as the closer and everyone will fall into place behind him. I just have no idea who the new closer will be.

All A-Rod, All The Time

  • On communication with Alex Rodriguez: “We text, we email, we talk on the phone. We do different things, see videos. It’s been good. I know he’s working extremely hard and that’s going to be a hot button in Spring Training. And we’ve just got to go through Spring Training and see where he’s at. He hasn’t played a lot in two years … We have to see where he’s at.”
  • On first base: “Well, I talked to him about first base and I said ‘We’ll talk about it in Spring Training’ because let’s see the makeup of our club. If we have another first baseman, if I want to give (Mark Teixeira) a day off, then we can put the other one in there. If we don’t, we could possibly move you over there. I’ll see if he’s comfortable and go from there.”
  • On distractions: “You know, I think our guys will handle it well. I’m not so sure over the last three years, when he hasn’t garnered a lot of attention when he’s been in the clubhouse — think about when he came back to Chicago, in San Diego, when he came back — so it’s something we have to pay attention to, but I think our guys are up for it and have the experience and know how to handle it and we’ll handle it.”

Girardi also mentioned he saw some video of A-Rod hitting and working out and other stuff and said he looked good. I fully expect Spring Training to be a total circus because of Alex and I think he will spend some time at first base, at least in camp. It’s really hard to expect him to be productive though. How you do you think Chipper Jones would perform in 2015 if he returned to the game after a two-year retirement? That’s basically what A-Rod will be doing, but with two surgically repaired hips.

The Rotation

  • On depth: “There’s some concerns, I think just because of guys coming off injuries. We feel good about them. We feel good about them coming back … But as we’ve seen, you need more than five starters, usually. You have to have some players that have the ability to do both. So we’re going to have to see what our rotation is, where everyone is at.”
  • On Masahiro Tanaka: “We’re counting on him to make his 32 starts. That’s something we’ll have to look at as the season progresses. We have a little bit more experience with him being on a five-man rotation now than we had before. He seemed to do pretty well. He did get hurt. But a lot of times when you talk about guys that have that situation it’s not necessarily one incident — it’s over time. But he came back well. His velocity was there, his split was there. So it’s just something I think you have to pay attention to.”
  • On other injury concerns: “In the back of your mind there’s some question marks. (Ivan) Nova will not be ready for Opening Day. We’ll have to wait a little bit, for sure. He’s had a great rehab … (CC Sabathia‘s) rehab has went well …. Michael Pineda has not thrown 200 innings in a while.”

I’m sure the Yankees are hoping Tanaka will make 32 starts next year but are planning for a scenario in which he makes, well, none. Nova not being ready in time for Opening Day is no surprise — he had surgery in late-April 2014 and at the very earliest would be ready in late-April 2015, but the more likely scenario is May or June. Who in the world knows what Sabathia can do. Not really much more to add here. The Yankees need some rotation depth.

The New Shortstop

  • On Didi Gregorius in general: “I think he’s a good young player that has a chance to blossom in New York. A very good defender. Had success with the bat last year with right-handers and is still young and has the ability to grow into a very good player.”
  • On Gregorius having to replace Derek Jeter: “I think the most important thing for Didi — and I’ll stress it — and I’ll have all the coaches stress it and the people around him, you just need to be yourself. You don’t need to try to be Derek. I think Robertson did a really good job of filling in for a superstar, a legend, a Yankee legend and was just himself. And we need to pay attention to that and make sure that Didi, hey, go out and play, just do what you do.”
  • On Jeter being gone: “I think the reality for me started to hit a little bit the last games in Boston. That that was going to be kind of it … We’re starting anew now. It’s kind of a new era for the Yankees without Derek at shortstop. He’s been there a very, very long time and played at a very high level. But I’ll say it again, Didi, just be yourself.”

Gregorius replacing Jeter is going to be a thing all season, isn’t it? May the baseball gods help the poor kid if he gets off to a slow start in April. Every slump at the plate and error in the field will be scrutinized. That’s just how it will be. I’ve already seen articles saying Gregorius has what it takes to succeed in New York (link) and articles saying he won’t be able to handle the bright lights (link), so no one has any idea what the hell they’re talking about. We just have to wait and see.

Girardi’s right when he says Gregorius just has to be himself, and at the same time the Yankees can’t baby him either. Treat him like any other 24-year-old you’re trying to develop into your shortstop of the future. Play him everyday — sitting him against a tough lefty like Chris Sale or David Price is fine, but a straight platoon with Brendan Ryan would be so, so dumb — and give the kid an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s curious to see how the team balances Gregorius’ development with winning because, frankly, they’ve sucked at developing players lately.

The Offseason

  • On the team’s biggest needs: “You know, when I look at our club, I think you have to think about the depth of the rotation … You need depth in your rotation. You have to. I don’t know how many starters we used last year, but I know we lost four. So we used a lot and that’s something that’s a concern.”
  • On Hiroki Kuroda: “We’re not sure what he’s going to do. That’s a decision he has to make and it’s about the time a player either has in his heart, I want to come back, or It’s time for me to retire. So it’s a decision that he has to make.”
  • On Francisco Cervelli: “We’re going to miss him. He was a good player for us …. He’s a player that was loved in the clubhouse. We loved his energy and the way he played the game. The way he went about his business. I’m happy that he gets an opportunity to play every day. I’ve said all along, I believe he’s an everyday catcher, and he’ll help someone.”

Getting Kuroda back would add some stability to the rotation but the Yankees can’t wait around forever for him to make his decision either. The pitching dominoes are starting to fall and the club has to act soon to get the help they need. If Kuroda decides to play later, great. They can figure it out then. The Yankees don’t want to be left standing at the game of pitching musical chairs because they spent weeks on end waiting for Kuroda.

Miscellany

  • On losing two homegrown stars in two offseasons: “It’s the nature of the revenue sharing and what TV contracts have allowed other clubs to do. I think the game has changed (from what) it was 20 years ago.”
  • On incorporating young players: “We need our system to be productive and for our young players to come up and help us out because, as I’ve said, the game has changed. And more clubs are able to bid on players than probably ever before. So the price goes up and sometimes you lose those players. I feel pretty good about our young kids that are coming. And it’s not just (Rob) Refsnyder or (Jose) Pirela, there’s more that you could talk about and that excites me.”
  • On the coaching staff: “We’ve had some interviews and things have kind of got interrupted with the GM Meetings and organizational meetings and changes in our organization and then coming down here … We’ll probably pick up again when this is all said and done, and we’ll iron out our coaching staff.”
  • On Martin Prado: “I don’t think you have an ideal (position). Would you like to leave him at one spot?  Yeah. But his versatility allows us to rest people at times. We might ask him to do that depending on the makeup of our club.”

Imagine if the Yankees don’t re-sign Chase Headley and go into next season with a double play combination of Gregorius and either Pirela or Refsnyder. How much patience will they have for those growing pains on the middle infield? I’m guessing not much but more than most fans. And, as I’ve said before, I think I’m more curious to see how long the team can go without a hitting coach and first base coach than I am to see who they actually hire. Today’s the two month anniversary of them firing Kevin Long and Mick Kelleher, you know.

Yankees land Didi Gregorius in three-team trade, send Shane Greene to Tigers

So what's the Sterling call? (Presswire)
So what’s the Sterling call? (Presswire)

1:58pm: It’s a done deal, the Yankees have officially announced the trade. The deal is as reported this morning: Greene to the Tigers, Ray and Leyba to the D’Backs, and Gregorious to the Yankees. Welcome to the Bronx, Didi.

12:01pm: The Yankees have landed their shortstop of the future. Or at least their shortstop for 2015. The team has agreed to acquire Didi Gregorius from the D’Backs in a three-team trade that sends Shane Greene to the Tigers. Detroit is sending left-hander Robbie Ray and minor league infielder Domingo Leyba to Arizona. It doesn’t appear there are any other pieces involved. The deal is still pending physicals. The always reliable Sweeny Murti and Ken Rosenthal had the news. Bob Nightengale says Arizona rejected Greene-for-Gregorius straight up before the Tigers got involved.

In a nutshell, the trade plugs the Yankees’ shortstop hole with a young player who can actually play above-average defense and may improve at the plate. It also creates an even bigger hole in the rotation — Greene was the only MLB starter on New York’s roster without some kind of injury concern heading into 2015. The Yankees needed rotation help before the trade and they need even more now. It seems like they will dip into free agency to take care of that. Plenty of arms still available.

Gregorius, 24, was originally signed and developed by the Reds. He went to Arizona in the three-team trade that sent Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati and Trevor Bauer to the Indians two offseasons ago. Gregorius is from Amsterdam and he comes from a baseball family. His father pitched in Honkbal Hoofdklasse — the highest level of pro baseball in the Netherlands — and his brother plays in that league now. Didi’s real name is Mariekson Julius, by the way.

This past season Gregorius hit .226/.293/.393 (76 wRC+) with six homers in 229 plate appearances for the D’Backs. He spent much of the summer in Triple-A — he hit .310/.389/.447 (122 wRC+) with three homers in 260 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2014 — after losing the starting shortstop job to Chris Owings in Spring Training. Arizona has clearly identified Owings as their shortstop of the future and used Gregorius to fill their pitching needs.

Didi, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 lbs., hit .252/.332/.373 (92 wRC+) with seven homers in 404 plate appearances in 2013, his first extended stint in MLB. He actually hit his first career homer at Yankee Stadium last April, but it came against Phil Hughes, so that hardly counts:

The Yankees are clearly hoping Gregorius, a left-handed hitter, can get back to his 2013 level of production and improve on it going forward. It’s worth noting Gregorius does draw a fair amount of walks (career 8.1 BB%) without striking out much (16.9 K%), and those are two traits that generally portend well for the future. He hasn’t hit lefties at all as a big leaguer though — 33 wRC+ against lefties and 102 wRC+ against righties.

In the field, Gregorius is considered an above-average defender by scouts while the various stats say he’s been about average if not a tick below so far in the show. I wouldn’t take the numbers to heart right now given the relatively small sample size. “He has smooth actions, plus range and a sniper rifle of an arm. His arm rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, allowing him to make plays from deep in the hole that other shortstops can’t,” said Baseball America (subs. req’d) when they ranked him Cincinnati’s fifth best prospect following the 2012 season, before the trade to Arizona.

Gregorius has been healthy throughout his career aside from an elbow strain in 2013 that kept him out for just about all of Spring Training plus the first two weeks of the regular season. He missed another week in April 2013 after suffering a concussion when he was hit in the head by a pitch. Otherwise his medical history is clean. Gregorius is considered a good makeup/clubhouse guy and he also speaks four languages: English, Spanish, Dutch, and Papiamento. That’ll come in handy in the clubhouse.

Greene, 26, was pretty much a rotation savior for the Yankees this summer. He had a 3.78 ERA (3.73 FIP) in 78.2 innings during his MLB debut with strong strikeout (9.27 K/9 and 23.5 K%) and ground ball (50.2 GB%) rates. His walk rate (3.32 BB/9 and 8.4 BB%) was solid and his command has been much improved these last two years thanks to some mechanical tweaks make by minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson. I like Greene, I think his mid-90s sinker/upper-80s slider combo is legit, though he did struggle against lefties this season, as detailed in our season review post.

Because he spent a big chunk of 2014 season in the minors, Gregorius currently has less than two years of service time, so he can not become a free agent until after the 2019 season. He will be a Super Two though, meaning he will be arbitration-eligible for the first time next offseason and have three more years or arbitration after that. Greene won’t be arbitration-eligible until after 2017 or a free agent until after 2020. The Yankees are giving up six years of Greene for five years of Gregorius. I don’t see a problem with that.

The Yankees desperately needed a shortstop, both for the short-term and long-term, and while we have to wait to see if Gregorius can become that long-term piece, the team got him at what I think is a more than fair price if not an outright bargain. I really like Greene and think he’ll be a solid pitcher going forward, but pitchers like him are much easier to find that 24-year-old shortstops these days. I don’t love Didi, I’m skeptical about his bat going forward, but this is a shot the Yankees had to take.

Joe’s obligatory off-season wish list

Let’s cut to the chase: The Yankees need help this off-season. Even after doling out four large contracts last year, they need even more help. With free agents officially allowed to sign with any club, the off-season has begun. What better way to kick it off than with a RAB wish list.

Here we go, in priority order.

Priority #1: Shortstop

For the third straight off-season, shortstop is a position of need for the Yankees. For the past two off-seasons the presence of Derek Jeter has prevented the Yankees from addressing that need in any real way. They now have the opportunity to improve the position. They need it, too: they tied Detroit for lowest OPS at SS in the AL, by 74 points. Jeter’s poor defense is also an easy fix.

MLB Trade Rumors predicts that the Yankees will sign Hanley Ramirez.

In a way, it’s tough to see. Ramirez, 31 in December, will command a six- or seven-year deal, probably comparable to the one the Yankees gave Jacoby Ellsbury last off-season. Will they pony up again, for a player who missed nearly half of 2013 and about 20 percent of 2014 with injuries?

Last off-season the Yanks spent big on two position players entering their age-30 seasons. It’s tough to see them going down that path again.

They could trade for Troy Tulowitzki, but he’s signed to a six-year, $118 million deal. The Rockies won’t just give him away, either. He, too, has missed plenty of time due to injury in the last three years. So while his remaining contract is more palatable than what Ramirez will command, the cost in players will make acquiring him less desirable.

To improve production at shortstop, they don’t need too much. There’s no direction to go but up — unless they plan to install Brendan Ryan as the everyday SS. The challenge is finding a player who can provide that kind of upgrade at a reasonable cost in dollars or players.

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

Free agent choice: Stephen Drew. Yes, he was bad in pinstripes. Yes, he might be better with an actual spring training. He can play defense and has hit well in the past. He’ll also get nothing more than a make-good contract, again, so he’s a potential bargain. He’s certainly a better bet than Jed Lowrie and Asdrubal Cabrera, who will both get bigger contracts and are both not very good on defense.

Trade choice: Didi Gregorius. Not many teams have spare shortstops, but the Diamondbacks do have a number of youngsters. It seems they have the most interest in trading Gregorius, which is sensible given his service time and mediocre bat. But again, that bat is considerably better than what the Yankees produced at SS in 2014, and plays seemingly average defense, there could be a match.

Priority #2: Starting pitching

(Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
(Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

The following starting pitchers on the 40-man roster, with MLB experience, will be back with the Yankees next year: CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Masahiro Tanaka, Chase Whitley, Shane Greene, Bryan Mitchell, David Phelps. There is also Ivan Nova, but he might not be back until the All-Star break following Tommy John surgery.

That’s not exactly a group you can rely on. Of those eight, five spent significant time on the DL in 2014. Whitley is not someone you want starting in anything other than an emergency situation. Mitchell has what, one start? Greene might be good as a fifth starter, but the Yanks need guys ahead of him.

It seems pretty clear, then, that the Yankees need to upgrade at starting pitcher. They might want to do so in a major way, too.

Step One: Re-sign McCarthy. Whatever went on between McCarthy and Larry Rothschild worked. McCarthy enjoyed his time in NY and thinks the two sides are a great fit. Get this done, and get another solid starter in the rotation.

Step Two: Sign Jon Lester. MLBTR predicts the Yankees sign Scherzer, and that’s a possibility. But Lester has AL East experience, is a lefty, and doesn’t come with a draft pick price tag. Competition for his services will be high, but the Yankees should be right at the top of the pack.

Priority #3: Another infielder

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

Relying on Alex Rodriguez to play even 81 games at third base is a mistake. They could start him there and put Martin Prado at second base, moving Prado to 3B and calling up Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela to play 2B when A-Rod gets hurt. But it might be best to plan on A-Rod playing no third base and deepening the infield corps.

We learned recently that the Yankees have begun negotiations with Chase Headley, and that makes plenty of sense. With him manning the hot corner, and Prado at 2B, the Yankees have strengthened the infield considerably without even addressing shortstop. A modest upgrade there, and some improvement from Teixeira, will go a long way to improving the team’s most glaring 2014 weakness.

What about Refsnyder? Prado is versatile, and has covered third base and the corner outfield positions in the past. Should the Yankees face an injury there, he can slide over and make room for Refsnyder. The idea isn’t to block him — he needs a chance to prove himself — but instead to create a strong starting corps and let Refsnyder act as depth.

Priority #4: Bullpen

(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The Royals proved what Yankees fans have known forever: a lockdown bullpen can carry an otherwise unremarkable team. Yet rarely will a team go through a season with three lockdown guys not getting hurt or overworked. The Royals got lucky. The Yankees need options.

Step One: Re-sign David Robertson, whether to the qualifying offer or a multi-year deal. He’s proven his mettle in New York, and the Yankees could use a closer like him.

Step Two: Sign Andrew Miller. Going into the season with a bullpen consisting of Robertson, Miller, Dellin Betances, Jacob Lindgren, Adam Warren, and Shawn Kelley will provide them with a deep core, allowing them to test guys like Jose Ramirez and maybe even Manny Banuelos.

Even after a busy off-season in 2013, the Yankees need even more in order to avoid missing the postseason for a third consecutive season. If they insist on keeping payroll even with 2014, then they have no shot. If they open the purse strings and expand payroll to near-Dodgers levels, then they could very well surpass their AL East foes.

This isn’t the only plan, but it’s one that helps address the Yankees needs without getting into the $300 million range. The Drew idea won’t be popular, but if it means not signing Hanley to a huge deal and having enough money to sign a top tier starting pitcher, isn’t that worthwhile?

Scouting The Trade Market: D’Backs’ Position Players

Thanks to baseball’s general mediocrity, the Yankees remain in the postseason hunt — they come into today 3.5 games back of both the top spot in the AL East and the second wildcard — but there’s little chance they will play in October without getting help at the trade deadline. They already acquired Brandon McCarthy, but that move alone isn’t putting them over the top. They need more help, both pitching and offense.

We know the Diamondbacks are ready to sell because they’ve started doing it already. It’s not just the McCarthy trade, they also dealt Joe Thatcher and Tony Campana over the weekend. Last week we looked at the pitchers they could peddle (pre-McCarthy deal), and now it’s time to look at the position players. Remember, just because the Yankees and D’Backs have already gotten together for one trade this month does not mean they can’t hook up again.

Hill. (Norm Hall/Getty)
Hill. (Norm Hall/Getty)

2B Aaron Hill
Hill, 32, has been one of the most productive second basemen in baseball over the last few years, at least on and off. He hit .298/.359/.501 (129 wRC+) with 37 homers in 243 games from 2012-13, but this year he’s dropped down to .239/.275/.356 (70 wRC+) with six homers in 85 games. It’s not the first time Hill has had this kind of drop-off either. He went from 36 homers to almost being designated for assignment while with the Blue Jays back in the day.

Hill’s strikeout rate (17.5%) is way up and his walk rate (4.3%) is way down this year (13.0 K% and 7.9 BB% from 2012-13), though his plate discipline stats are right in line with the last few years. He isn’t swinging more or less often, either at stuff inside or outside the zone, which suggests his strikeout and walk numbers may return to his career norms in time. Maybe he’s offering at more pitchers’ pitches, but the plate discipline numbers don’t come with any red flags. It’s weird.

The biggest concern with Hill is that his power is way down. He had a .203 ISO from 2012-13, but is down to only .117 this year. Again, his batted ball profile is right in line with the last few years, so there are no red flags there, and batted ball distance data shows he is hitting the ball just as far this year (on average) as the last few seasons:

Aaron Hill Batted Ball DistanceI’m not quite sure how the explain the poor strikeout, walk, and power numbers, which is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It could be a indication he is having an unlucky year — I think the word “luck” has jumped the shark in baseball, but it still exists, sometimes guys have bad years or no real reason — and will bounce back in the future, or it could be a sign there is some kind of mechanical/swing issue we can’t detect with the stats. That’s much more problematic.

The Diamondbacks bought into Hill’s huge 2012 season (132 wRC+) and gave him a three-year, $35M extension the following spring. He is owed approximately $5.5M through the end of the season plus $12M in each of the next two seasons. If he was still mashing 20+ homers with a 120+ wRC+ and average defense at second, it would be more than a fair salary. But he’s not doing that anymore. Hill’s production has fallen way off and he is at that age when second basemen tend to fall off a cliff.

Prado. (Norm Hall/Getty)
Prado. (Norm Hall/Getty)

IF/OF Martin Prado
Like Hill, Prado’s production has fallen off this season after very successful 2012-13 campaigns. The 30-year-old hit .292/.346/.427 (111 wRC+) with 24 homers and 20 steals in 311 games from 2012-13, though this year he is at .268/.313/.365 (86 wRC+) in 89 games. His strikeout (13.9%), walk (4.9%), and plate discipline numbers are right in line with the career averages, though he is hitting a ton more grounders (53.8%) and that has sapped his power (.097 ISO).

Now Prado is not much of a power hitter to start with, at least not over the fence power. He’s usually good for 10-15 homers per season, though he’ll also chip in 30+ doubles per year as well. This season he has four dingers and only 13 two-baggers. It’s fairly common for contact hitters to start beating the ball into the ground when they decline, but Prado seems a little too young for that. A half-season of batted ball data is hardly enough to conclude he’s in irreversible age-related decline.

As you may know, Prado has always stood out for his versatility. He has a ton of experience at second base, third base, and in right field. He’s also filled in at shortstop, right field, and first base on occasion. The various defensive stats say he’s a tick above average at third and in left but slightly below average at second. Hill has been a second baseman exclusively for about eight years now, so while Prado can not match his over-the-fence power ability, he makes up for it by being able to play more positions competently.

Arizona gave Prado a four-year extension worth $40M last spring. He is owed about $5M through the end of the season plus $11M in both 2015 and 2016, so he and Hill have basically identical contract situations. If he was producing like regular old Martin Prado, it would be more than a fair wage. Since he is having a down year and it’s unclear if there is something more to it than just the general ups and downs of baseball, it’s a bit more scary.

Ross. (Christian Petersen/Getty)
Ross. (Christian Petersen/Getty)

OF Cody Ross
The Yankees have received only 15 homers from right-handed hitters this year, six by the departed Alfonso Soriano. They went into last night’s game hitting only .257/.321/.375 (92 wRC+) against lefties this season. That’s pretty terrible. The need for another right-handed power bat is pretty obvious.

Ross, 33, dislocated his hip (!) running through first base last August, an injury that required surgery and kept him on the shelf at the start of the season. He returned in mid-April and has hit .224/.278/.279 (53 wRC+) overall, including .260/.327/.260 (67 wRC+) against lefties. Before the injury, Ross put up a stout .339/.399/.612 (170 wRC+) batting line with 16 homers in 242 plate appearances against southpaws from 2012-13. Considering he is coming off the hip injury and has nearly twice as many plate appearances against righties (103) than lefties (55), this year’s poor performance isn’t all that surprising.

The D’Backs gave Ross a three-year deal worth $25M two winters ago, so he is owed approximately $4.5M through the end of the season plus another $9.5M in 2015. That’s pretty pricey for the right-handed half of a right field platoon, no? Maybe Arizona would be willing to eat some money like they did with McCarthy. Ross can play all three outfield spots and is no worse than slightly below-average everywhere, which is neither good nor terrible. It’s tolerable. If you think he can get back to his 2012-13 form as he gets further away from the hip injury and are willing to live with that salary, Ross would make a lot of sense for the Yankees.

Owings. (Mike McGinnis/Getty)
Owings. (Mike McGinnis/Getty)

Young Infielders
In Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings, the Diamondbacks have two highly marketable young shortstops. Gregorius, 24, is hitting .222/.337/.389 (97 wRC+) in only 87 plate appearances this year after opening the season in Triple-A, where he had a 123 wRC+. Last season he hit .252/.332/.373 (91 wRC+) as the everyday shortstop. The book on him continues to be that he can legitimately play shortstop long-term, but his bat leaves a lot to be deserved.

The 22-year-old Owings took the shortstop job from Gregorius to start the year, though he has been sidelined by a relatively minor shoulder problem these last two weeks. He was hitting .277/.313/.458 (110 wRC+) with six homers in 254 plate appearances before the injury. Owings is considered a slick fielder like Gregorius, but he offers way more pop and impact potential with the bat. UConn product Nick Ahmed, 24, put up a 119 wRC+ in 336 Triple-A plate appearances before being called up the other day. He is the best defender of the trio but also likely the worst hitter despite his minor league numbers this year. That is an enviable group of young middle infields, no doubt about it.

* * *

Real talk forthcoming: if Hill and/or Prado were on the Yankees, we’d be talking about them as overpaid veterans who are part of the problem. But, because they’re on another team and the grass is always greener, they’re being looked at as possible solutions. I think versatility is overrated and would prefer Hill to Prado, especially given the team’s need for right-handed power, but I’m just not sure if he’s simply having a bad year or is starting to decline.

Hill had two and a half years left on his contract when he was traded from the Blue Jays to the D’Backs a few years ago, and all Arizona gave up was … Kelly Johnson. They bought really low and it has worked out wonderfully. (No, Kevin Towers probably will take Johnson back for Hill now.) Hill’s trade value figures to be a little higher this time around despite his performance, especially if Arizona is willing to eat some cash like they did with McCarthy, but I don’t have any idea what a reasonable package would be. Two good but not great prospects? Someone like Ramon Flores or Rafael DePaula? I’m not sure.

Ross is owed a ton of money relative to his role and the D’Backs would have to eat some to make a deal palatable. Even then they would have to take back very little, a player to be named later type. I greatly prefer Owings to Gregorius and especially Ahmed. Obviously adding Derek Jeter‘s long-term replacement should be a goal for the Yankees in the near future. Players like Owings and Gregorius are usually dealt as part of a package for an established veteran, not by a team that is selling. Tough to gauge their market value. Arizona has some potentially useful position players for the Yankees, but for different reasons, it’s tough to pin down the exact trade value of each.

Scouting The Trade Market: Diamondbacks

Owings. (Presswire)
Owings. (Presswire)

Even after signing Kelly Johnson, Brian Roberts, and a small army of guys on minor league contracts, the Yankees continue to look for infield help before the start of the season. They need both short and long-term help too. With Stephen Drew the only appealing free agent still on the board, trading for an infielder seems like the best way for the club to get the help it needs. One of the few teams with infield depth to spare is the Diamondbacks.

“For us, it would have to be the right deal,” said former Yankees special assistant and current D’Backs GM Kevin Towers to Nick Piecoro when asked about trading an infielder. “Our biggest needs in our system are catching. If it’s the right, top-notch catching prospect. Someone we could have right behind [Miguel Montero]. More of an upper-level guy. Maybe a top, upper-end starter. We have a lot of bullpen depth, infielders. Maybe an outfielder, but probably more catching and Double-A, Triple-A type starter.”

Towers went on to say the team has not had many trade discussions about their infielders recently, likely because Drew remains unsigned. Marc Carig heard the D’Backs were looking for a Travis d’Arnaud type, a premium catching prospect, but I suspect that is posturing more than anything. No harm in asking for the moon. The Yankees have a bunch of young catchers and as luck would have it, they really need a young infielder. The trade fit is obvious. Let’s see what Arizona has to offer.

Nick Ahmed
Ahmed, 24 next month, is local product out of UConn who went from the Braves to the D’Backs in last winter’s Justin Upton trade. He hasn’t hit much during his three years as a pro, including putting up a weak .236/.288/.324 (77 wRC+) batting line with four homers and 26 stolen bases in 538 Double-A plate appearances last season. Ahmed is considered a top notch gloveman though, with Baseball America calling him a “plus defender at shortstop with soft hands, a strong, accurate arm and a quick release” in their 2014 Prospect Handbook. They ranked him as the 18th best prospect in Arizona’s system and likened him to John McDonald long-term.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Didi Gregorius
The D’Backs acquired Gregorius from the Reds last offseason as part of the Shin-Soo Choo three-team trade. They insisted the 24-year-old could hit for weeks after the deal, then he went out and put up a .252/.332/.373 (91 wRC+) line with seven homers in 404 plate appearances as the team’s everyday shortstop last summer. That’s a touch better than Eduardo Nunez production. Acceptable for a good defender but not enough to erase the doubts about his bat.

Gregorius hit his first career homer at Yankee Stadium early last year, but his calling card will always be his glove. Baseball America (subs. req’d) ranked him as Arizona’s fifth best prospect before last season and said he has “smooth actions, plus range and a sniper rifle of an arm [that] rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, allowing him to make plays from deep in the hole that other shortstops can’t.” You really have to squint your eyes to see Gregorius as a hitter long-term, but there is no doubt about his glove and he showed that during his rookie season. The kid can pick it.

Chris Owings
Owings, 22, made his brief big league debut late last season after hitting .330/.359/.482 (121 wRC+) with 12 homers and 20 steals in 575 plate appearances in the hitter friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Keith Law (subs. req’d) ranked him as the 72nd prospect in the game last month and had this to say:

His 2013 line was boosted by playing in hitter-friendly Triple-A Reno, but Owings’ bat speed is undeniable and his swing is simple and direct. I don’t see loft in the swing for home-run power, but he’s an above-average runner and I think he’ll hit plenty of line-drives to the gaps for 30-40 doubles a year. At shortstop, he has great instincts, quick feet, and a plus arm, everything required to be at least a 60-grade defender there — very much what Didi Gregorius was supposed to be, but with better hit and run tools.

Owings was 17 years old when he signed, so he had 2,000 pro plate appearances before he turned 22 and is more than ready to take over as the everyday shortstop in Arizona now, where he might walk once a week but will contribute in plenty of other ways to keep the job.

Strikeouts have been a concern over the years (23.4% from 2011-12) but Owings cut down on them a bit last year (17.2%), which is a positive sign but hardly definitive proof he has cleared that hurdle. Owings is a right-handed hitter like Ahmed and unlike the lefty swinging Gregorious, and he has the best all-around potential of Arizona’s various young shortstops. He has a chance to contribute both at the plate and in the field, something that isn’t all that easy to find at the position.

* * *

The D’Backs could also push the veteran Cliff Pennington in trades for a catcher, but he has little value. He’s another no-hit, all-glove type like Brendan Ryan and that simply doesn’t fetch much when they aren’t in their early-20s. I mentioned him as a possible target while looking for Ichiro Suzuki trade matches and that was basically a salary dump situation. Owings is the guy to me; he’s the one the Yankees should target because he’s a legit two-way shortstop. Another no-hit, all-glove guy doesn’t make much sense with Ryan already on board.

I really like John Ryan Murphy — I didn’t rank him as the team’s second best prospect for nothing, you know — but man a Murphy for Owings swap sure seems to make sense for both clubs. The Yankees signed Brian McCann long-term this winter and they would still have Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez around as catching depth. I mean, if they’re not open to trading Murphy for a desperately needed MLB-ready shortstop prospect, then what are they going to do with him?

Obviously there is more to be considered than positional needs. How do the D’Backs value Murphy and New York’s other catchers? Prospect-for-prospect trades are rare because teams always love their players more than everyone else’s. Also, is there any urgency to make a trade now, or is Arizona content to wait around and play the market a bit? I’m a fan of getting a deal done quickly just so the player can spend a few weeks in camp working with the coaches and learning the organizational ropes before the season starts. That’s just me. These two clubs appear to match up very well for a trade, but, as we’ve learned over the years, that is hardly a guarantee a deal will actually get done.