The Next Next Yankee Shortstop
The pressure of succeeding Derek Jeter in New York is a convenient narrative for the early season struggles of Didi Gregorius but the more likely reason for his mediocre play is that he’s just not very good. With some track record of league-average hitting against righties and 13 homers in roughly 700 major league plate appearances I thought he made for an okay platoon option in 2015, especially given the short porch in Yankee Stadium. Through the first month of 2015, he’s hitting .221/.280/.250 with no home runs and his .235/.273/.275 triple slash against northpaws is only marginally better than his overall line. Perhaps more worrisome are his struggles in the field, his supposed strength. Among regular shortstops, he’s the fifth worst by UZR and while he ranks somewhat better by Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA metric (11th worst), he’s still nearly a bottom third defender thus far. These numbers come with a couple valid caveats; Gregorious just turned 25 and we’re still talking about sample sizes that are insignificant, especially on the defensive metrics. On the other hand, if Gregorius isn’t hitting or fielding, there’s not much reason for a competitive Yankees team to continue to run him out there. Let’s have a look at their other short- and long-term options.
The Potential Near-Term Replacement
Jose Pirela is currently working his way back to full speed and game action after a nasty wall collision towards the end of Spring Training. When healthy, he profiles as a classic utility player, with ability to play multiple positions passably and make contact at an above-average rate. His 86.4 percent contact rate was good for a top 25 mark in the International League in 2014, where his .305 average won the batting title and his .792 OPS was a top ten mark. Pirela lacks impact pop and speed but could conceivably reach double digit home run and steal totals if given regular playing time. He has 20 homers and 33 steals over the past two seasons in Double-A and Triple-A. Pirela’s natural position is second base, so the most likely scenario upon his eventual promotion is the short side of a platoon with Stephen Drew and/or Gregorius. If he hits and Gergorius continues to struggle, there are several paths to full-time at-bats, including a regular assignment at short or Drew sliding to the six while Pirela mans the keystone. He won’t be a long-term regular in the Bronx but he is the same age as Gregorius and what the Yankees need out of their middle infield and bottom of the order is floor, not ceiling. Pirela may be the most solid, reliable contributor the Yankees have right now and he should be in pinstripes in the next couple weeks.
Jorge Mateo is the third ranked prospect in the Yankees system according to Baseball America and the fifth ranked according to Baseball Prospectus. At 19 years old and getting his first taste of full-season ball, he’s raw but has a chance to be a difference maker in fantasy because of his top-of-the-scale speed. He’s put that 80 grade to work already at Low-A Charleston, swiping 20 bases in as many games while hitting .250/.318/.316. There doesn’t seem to be any question that Mateo will stay at shortstop, with good hands and feet, athleticism that translates to solid range, and arm strength that has improved since his 2012 signing. The development of his hit tool will be the key to his long-term value. He complements a solid approach for his age with good barrel control and bat speed, even flashing some surprising pop in the 2013 Dominican Summer League, where he hit seven homers. He hasn’t homered since then, but his 2014 was only 15 games long due to a broken finger. Mateo is several years away but if he can prove an ability to hit advanced breaking stuff and rediscover even a little of that over-the-fence power, he’ll be an impact player in both fantasy and reality.
Tyler Wade got a shot to play shortstop at Low-A more often than anticipated in 2014 due to the injuries and struggles of the more highly regarded Abiatal Avelino. Wade impressed, slashing .272/.350/.349 and adding 22 steals. He’s out of the gates quickly in 2015 at High-A Tampa, hitting .321/.380/.346 with eight steals but brings no power to the table, with only one home run since being drafted in 2013. He has the ability to play either middle infield position but plays short well enough to project there long-term. With Avelino recently joining him in Tampa, it will be interesting to see how the Yankees fill out the lineup card. Wade lacks ceiling but he’s producing at age appropriate levels, is solid with the glove, and has the approach and contact ability to hit atop a lineup.
Avelino battled a quad injury in 2014 and hit .232/.296/.323 with 11 steals at Low-A. Like Wade, he’s 2o years old, is a true shortstop, and isn’t likely to hit many long balls. He was assigned to Low-A to begin 2015 but quickly got the call to High-A Tampa after hitting .301/.341/.398 with 16 steals in 20 games. Avelino’s approach lags behind Wade’s but he could still profile as a big league regular provided he can rebound from his disappointing 2014. With all the organizational depth at the Yankees disposal, it may not be in New York but Avelino is a potential bounce back prospect to watch.
With Wade and Avelino both in Tampa, the shortstop position at Charleston belongs to Mateo, but the RiverDogs do have another intriguing shortstop on the roster. Angel Aguilar is a 19-year-old Venezuelan who opened eyes in the Gulf Coast League last season, batting .311/.373/.536 with seven home runs in 167 plate appearances. He began 2015 in extended spring training but was recently added to the roster and has pair of homers in his first five games, all of which he’s played at third base. Despite the power production and above-average bat speed and arm, his is not really a third base profile. He’s a toolsy player and I’m excited to see how he holds up in a full-season league and how the Yankees use him.
The July 2 Class
As you probably know, the Yankees created so much rain last summer even Weezy would be uncomfortable. Their haul included several shortstops, including Dermis “Thick Skin” Garcia (probably a third baseman, I just couldn’t sit on the nickname any longer) Wilkerman Garcia, Diego Castillo, and Hyo-Joon Park. These kids are so so young and unknown that I’ll reserve comment until I rehash this column in 2017, right after the Yankees sign Garcia’s little brother Epidermis.