Following the 2019 season, the Yankees decided not to re-sign their current shortstop, Didi Gregorius, as a free agent.
One reason was that he was asking for a higher salary (well deserved) and an extended contract. The Yanks were making a strong effort to control their salary budget at the time (sound familiar?)
Also, the Bombers had what they expected was an heir apparent at shortstop, Gleyber Torres.
The team thought that he had more potential long-term as a player and wouldn’t cost the Savages an arm and a leg. In comparison, Didi would cost the Yanks a lot more money right away.
Torres is a superb and sophisticated hitter. In 2018, the then 21-year-old produced a slash line of .271/.340/.480. The following year, he raked a triple slash of .278/.337/.535. He posted an OPS +122 and +127 in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Particularly noteworthy were his 38 home runs and 90 RBI in 2019.
In 2018, he played second base in 109 games and shortstop in 21 games. The following year, he played a higher number of games at short than at second base (77 vs. 65 games). Obviously, the Yanks were already planning for him to become their next great shortstop.
While his hitting was impressive, his fielding left a lot to be desired. In 2018, he made 12 errors playing second base and five errors playing shortstop. In 2019, he made nine errors playing second base and 11 errors playing shortstop. His fielding range stats at both positions were lacking as well.
Understandably, GM Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone likely think that this is a very young player who will have plenty of time to improve his defense as he develops further. His fielding and throwing will catch up with his excellent hitting as time passes by.
Torres has worked very hard with the Yankee fielding coaches. However, it doesn’t appear to me that he has made much progress — especially in the wake of Wednesday night’s game, an extra-innings contest lost in large part due to Torres’ 10th-inning error with the Yankees on the verge of escaping trouble.
In 40 games during the shortened 2020 season, he took over sole possession of shortstop, and he made nine errors. His fielding and throwing still suffered during spring training and in the very early games of the new 2021 season, too.
Not surprisingly, Yankees’ leadership, analysts, and fans have become increasingly concerned about the team’s problem at shortstop. While everyone expects him to pound the ball consistently in the batter’s box during the 2021 season, many are beginning to worry about whether he actually can improve his fielding and throwing. At this point, what should the Bombers do?
5 possible options the Yankees can pursue to play shortstop long-term
First, don’t give up on Torres yet. He is young and lacks major league experience. He is a good athlete, and he will learn how to field and throw better with more experience in the field. This should increase his self-confidence, too. Sometimes he hesitates to pursue ground balls all out.
Second, the Bombers can think about putting him back at second base. Yes, I know that he hasn’t played well at that position, too. But he certainly seems more comfortable playing the less demanding position of the two. Although not saying much, he at least seems to handle pop fly balls well at both positions.
Of course, this raises the issue of what to do with DJ LeMahieu? The skipper could put him at third base, leave Luke Voit at first base, and switch Gio Urshela to shortstop. The Yanks had Urshela play short in one game during spring training, and maybe they are considering doing this in the future. He is clearly a great fielder, and he could learn how to play nearby shortstop reasonably quickly, one would imagine.
A third option, which might be a stretch, is to train Torres to play left field. Aaron Judge would remain in right field, and gold glover Clint Frazier would move over to play center field, replacing Aaron Hicks.
The switch-hitting Hicks could become a primary pinch hitter along with Brett Gardner. Like Gardner, Hicks could fill in for one of the three regular outfielders when needed. Who knows? Torres might find it a lot easier to catch fly balls regularly and not have to worry about hard-hit ground balls eating him up.
Yet one could rightfully argue that there are already too many outfielders. What happens to Mike Tauchman? If this option is pursued, the Savages might want to trade one of their outfielders for another well-established player, such as a catcher, to replace Gary Sanchez — or an elite starting pitcher.
Another option is to turn Torres into a Designated Hitter if he continues to be a significant liability in the field. That way, the Yanks could capitalize on his hitting and not bear his poor fielding costs.
Of course, the question then becomes what to do with Giancarlo Stanton? He, too, is not a great fielder. For various reasons (very high salary, limited fielding play, no DH in the National League, etc.), it will be hard for the Bombers to trade Stanton for someone of similar quality.
A final option is to aggressively pursue one of the star shortstops (e.g., Trevor Story or Corey Seager) entering the offseason as a free agent and trade Torres for an accomplished catcher (or an elite starting pitcher). Obviously, this would mean that the Yanks have decided to give up on Torres and they now desire to move on.
However, as short-sighted as that sounds, it’s far more likely than trying him in left field or at DH.
A problem with this option is that the Bombers would have to shell out a great deal of money to acquire someone like Story or Seager. The New York Mets signed Francisco Lindor for a massive amount of money over many years, thereby emboldening other free agent shortstops to ask for multi-year contracts and a large sum of money paid overtime.
The Yanks would have to ask themselves whether they are willing to take on higher luxury tax payments over the next two or three years at a minimum. In contrast, Torres is only making $4 million in 2021, and he has three more years of arbitration eligibility. Torres won’t be a free agent until 2025. He is a terrific bargain right now.
In my opinion, the first option is the best strategy for the Savages to pursue at this time (i.e., be patient and wait). It is financially the least costly option with the greatest possible outcome.
Nonetheless, if the first option fails, the Yanks will be faced with difficult choices to make. We all should have a much better idea of where things stand with Torres by the end of the 2021 season.