By the end of 2018, Didi Gregorius had established himself as perhaps the Yankees’ best all-around player, an important lefty bat in their lineup and a leader on the team. The Yankees tried to negotiate a long-term extension that offseason, but the two sides couldn’t reach a deal. Heading into 2019, it was widely expected Gregorius would cash a big free agency payday.
But the 2019 season didn’t turn out the way the talented shortstop planned. By its conclusion, the Yankees had a different vision for their middle infield. The emergence of Gleyber Torres (from the Chapman trade with the Cubs) and DJ LeMahieu made Gregorius expendable. Yes, the Yankees have a big budget, but they also have an expensive list of targets. They declined tendering Gregorius a $17.8 million qualifying offer.
Gregorius is a free agent now, so what does his market look like? The Phillies are reported to be the frontrunner for his services. That would reunite the shortstop with his former skipper in New York, Joe Girardi, who now holds that job in the City of Brotherly Love. But Philadelphia is also fishing in the expensive Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson markets and may not be able to indulge all their infield interests. The Yankees remain engaged with their former player, but probably don’t have a full-time gig to offer. Just tonight, the Brewers are said to be in play, although they did just trade for Luis Urias.
The Reds are plainly in this market as well. Rumors have linked the club with Gregorius. That makes sense because Didi Gregorius is the consensus best available shortstop in the 2020 free agent class. Yes, the Reds picked up Freddy Galvis‘ option and the signing of Mike Moustakas puts Galvis at shortstop with the current roster. But there’s obvious room and opportunity for upgrade.
So should the club reunite with its former shortstop? Well, it depends.
The Reds signed Mariekson Julius “Didi” Gregorius as an international free agent in 2007. Both Gregorius’ father and brother go by the nickname Didi, so he adopted it rather than force the baseball world to learn Mariekson. Gregorius was born in Amsterdam and speaks four languages. The Reds had scouted him in an under-18 league.
Gregorius began with an assignment to a Reds rookie affiliate team in 2008 and the young shortstop moved steadily through the Reds system. He started his age-22 season in 2012 at AA-Pensacola and got promoted to AAA-Louisville after 81 games with the Blue Wahoos. Gregorius played 48 games for the Bats, where his manager was David Bell (Gregorius had also played for Bell for 38 games the year before with the AA-Carolina Mudcats).
Gregorius finished 2012 with a September call-up and played in 8 games for the big league club. Zack Cozart, who was then 26, had played 138 games at shortstop for the Reds that season. I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Gregorius was blocked by Cozart. At the time, they were seen as close equals, with analysts and fans split about who should be the Reds shortstop. Cozart, who like Gregorius was a wizard in the field, had hit just .246/.288/.399, 83 wRC+, in 600 plate appearances.
The Reds settled the debate by trading Didi Gregorius the following December. He was part of a three-team deal with Arizona and Cleveland that landed Shin-Soo Choo in Cincinnati for the 2013 season. Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer went to Cleveland. The late Kevin Towers, Arizona’s GM then, said Gregorius reminded him of a young Derek Jeter.
Gregorius didn’t win the SS job with Arizona. A combination of injury, mild concussion, failing to hit left-handed pitching and Chris Owings consigned Gregorius to the minor leagues or a backup role. In 2014, Gregorius got called up mid-season due to an injury to Cliff Pennington (yes, of Gossington infamy). Gregorius managed 300 major league plate appearances in 2014, played a little 2B, and struggled to hit (75 wRC+).
Two years after acquiring him, Arizona traded Gregorius to the New York Yankees, who in 2015 were looking for the heir apparent for the actual Derek Jeter, who had retired at the end of the 2014 season. Gregorius won the starting job in pinstripes and became their everyday SS. From 2015-2018, he played 130+ games per season. During that time, Gregorius developed into a better hitter, including against left-handers, culminating in an outstanding 2018 season (122 wRC+). All the while his defense remained superb.
Gregorius was a 4-WAR player for the Yankees in 2017 and 2018.
But in the 2018 postseason, Gregorius hurt his right elbow making a throw to home plate and underwent Tommy John surgery in the offseason. In a neat coincidence, Zack Cozart had the same surgery his age-29 season, missing the last 3.5 months of 2015. Gregorius had to sit out the first two months of 2019, but played regularly after his early June return.
What to make of Gregorius’ 2019 season?
By many measures, Didi Gregorius slumped at the plate in 2019. He hit .238/.276/.441, which was 16% below league average and 38% below his own 2018 output. This is not entirely surprising as Gregorius was working his way back from surgery and didn’t play the first two months of the season.
Still there were encouraging signs. Gregorius had the highest average Exit Velocity and Hard Hit% of his career by far. His xSLG (expected slugging) was also a career high. If you look at the balls he put in play (xwOBA with Contact), Gregorius exactly matched his outstanding 2018 season (.325).
In terms of pure power (ISO, the difference between batting average and slugging percentage), Gregorius had improved substantially every year as a Yankee:
- .105 (2015)
- .171 (2016)
- .191 (2017)
- .226 (2018)
In 2019, Gregorius produced a second-best .204 ISO. His average fly ball distance increased from 311 (2018) to 320 feet (2019).
If his power and ball striking remained solid, what had changed for the worse for Gregorius in 2019?
- His strikeout rate rose from 12.1% (2018) to 15.4% (2019). That number was still well below league average (21.7%)
- His walk rate dropped from 8.4% (2018) to 4.9% (2019). The latter number was in line with his earlier career, but Gregorius had made meaningful progress on walks in 2018. League average was 8.3%
- His fly ball rate (41.6 -> 44.1) and infield popup rate (12% -> 15%) ticked up.
- His batting average on balls in play BABIP (.237) was more than 40 points below his career average. Some of this comes from changes in his batted ball profile mentioned in the previous bullet, and some is bad luck. We know it wasn’t soft hitting.
In terms of defense, Gregorius has been an excellent shortstop. But by most defensive metrics, he took a step back in 2019, playing about average in the field.
2020 Projections vs. Freddy Galvis
How much of an upgrade would Didi Gregorius be over Freddy Galvis? A few projection services have released 2020 numbers. Here’s what three of them have for Gregorius and Freddy Galvis.
Steamer (Jared Cross, FanGraphs)
- Gregorius: .265/.313/.451 | 97 wRC+ | solid plus defense | 2.6 WAR
- Galvis: .240/.288/.387 | 71 wRC+ | solid plus defense | 0.2 WAR
That’s a large gap between Gregorius and Galvis at the plate. Yet, Steamer doesn’t see Gregorius rebounding back to his 2018 or even his 2017 season.
Marcel (Tom Tango, Baseball-Reference)
Marcel gives Gregorius a clear edge over Galvis and more power than Steamer sees for Gregorius. But Marcel has the difference between Gregorius and Galvis at about half the size that Steamer does.
ZiPS (Dan Szymborski, FanGraphs)
- Gregorius: .266/.309/.463 | 102 OPS+ | 2.1 WAR
ZiPS is in line with the other two systems on Gregorius. The lower WAR, as a counting stat, is explained by less playing time. ZiPS assumes 447 AB for Gregorius where Steamer assumes 560. FWIW, Marcel checks in at 391 AB.
Assessment of Gregorius
How much of Didi Gregorius’ 2019 drop-off was due to his recovering from injury, surgery and a late start to the season, and how much was due to age-29 decline? That’s not an either-or proposition. It would be surprising if both factors weren’t at least somewhat in play.
Didi Gregorius would arrive in Cincinnati with a relatively low range of uncertainty, both risk and upside.
The floor is high. Gregorius is NOT a player in physical free fall. He’ll just be 30. He hit the ball harder than ever last year. Many of his important offensive metrics remained solid and well above average. It’s unlikely that signing Gregorius would prove to be a disaster over a 3-year contract.
The biggest uncertainty comes with Gregorius’ strikeouts and walks. Did those numbers worsen because he was rusty and behind the league, or because his reaction time is slowing down and he’s starting to compensate? That’s what the Reds need to try to figure out.
Gregorius has an upside with limits. Yes, there’s an outside chance that the 2019 dip was mostly fluke and he could return to something near his 2018 performance. After all, the balls he hit in play in 2019 were the same as those in 2018. At his high ceiling, Gregorius might be a 3-4 WAR player and easily worth a contract.
But the projection systems like Gregorius as a 2.5 WAR player in 2020 and the various systems’ numbers are clumped together. Spending $14-15 million for that production is reasonable if the alternative is 0.5-1.0 WAR Freddy Galvis and no one in the system after Galvis can become a free agent in 2020.
The Reds Decision Framework
The Reds can afford $14-15 million per year for three years for Didi Gregorius. With the 2020 number for Mike Moustakas coming in at $12 million, the Reds have (conservatively) $24-29 million left to spend this year on new players. So Gregorius isn’t out of their price range.
The question is whether Gregorius — more precisely, the difference between Gregorius and Galvis — is worth it from an opportunity cost perspective.
Assume the rest of the Reds offseason moves consists of (1) one more big free agent signing, (2) a few small contract acquisitions and (3) a big, surprising trade. Should they use up that first category, the “big free agent signing,” on Gregorius? Or is the money better spent upgrading the outfield, say with Marcell Ozuna or Nick Castellanos? Because the Yankees didn’t extend a qualifying offer, the Reds wouldn’t face a draft pick penalty with Gregorius as they would with Ozuna.
The answer lies in the rest of the mix. As these things go, Gregorius is a safe, medium-expensive, solid upgrade. But the Reds need to aim higher than Didi Gregorius. If a big and surprising trade is in the works and they can do both, then grab Gregorius. But if spending the money on Gregorius comes at the expense of the bigger upside acquisition, they should pass.
[Featured image: https://twitter.com/DidiG18/status/1046773570385465346/photo/1]