Gregorius’s Tommy John Surgery Lights the Hot Stove

At the Yankees’ end-of-season press conference at Yankee Stadium on Friday, the team revealed that shortstop Didi Gregorius will undergo Tommy John surgery and, as a result, miss a substantial portion of the 2019 season. For better or worse, the announcement of his absence threw plenty of fuel on a hot-stove fire that’s been lit early by the Yankees’ elimination, as this would appear to intensify the team’s interest in pending free agent Manny Machado.

First, Gregorius. Manager Aaron Boone believes that the 28-year-old injured his right elbow while retrieving a rebound off Fenway Park’s Green Monster during one of the AL Division Series games, though general manager Brian Cashman said that when the team acquired him from the Diamondbacks in December 2014, he already had a partial tear that was “asymptomatic” and that the current tear was “the finishing part of something that was a sleeping giant.”

Either way, it’s a bummer. Gregorius is coming off a breakout season in which he recorded a .268/.335/.494 like with 27 homers, 10 steals, a 122 wRC+, and 4.6 WAR. All but the batting average represent career highs. He did all of that while missing 16 games in August and September due to a bruised left heel and then five games in late September due to a cartilage tear in his right wrist. Playing through the latter injury, he went 4-for-17 with a double in the Yankees’ five postseason games.

In four seasons with the Yankees, Gregorius has done what was thought to be nearly impossible, proving to be a more-than-adequate replacement for the iconic Derek Jeter while endearing himself to the team’s fan base. In four seasons, he’s averaged 3.6 WAR; his 8.7 over the past two campaigns trails only Francisco Lindor (13.4), Andrelton Simmons (10.6), and Machado (8.8) among shortstops, though the latter didn’t play the position at all in 2017.

As for his return, Boone said that Gregorius has a “real chance he plays the bulk of the [2019] season with us,” while Cashman declined to commit to a timetable. “Best to stay general,” he said. “I don’t want to [specifically] say June, July, August.”

When Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager went down with a torn UCL in May, I gathered a history of major-league infielders undergoing Tommy John surgery from Jon Regale’s database. Here it is, updated with the two pending returns:

MLB Infielders Who Underwent Tommy John Surgery*
Player Team Age Pos TJ Date Return**
Paul Molitor Brewers 27 IF 5/21/84 11
Greg Colbrunn Expos 23 1B 8/10/93 8
Randy Velarde Angels 34 IF 4/8/97 13
Tony Womack Cubs 33 IF 10/6/03 6
Ray Olmedo Reds 23 SS 11/9/04 8
Cesar Izturis Dodgers 25 SS 9/16/05 9
Kelly Johnson Braves 24 2B 6/1/06 10
Xavier Nady Yankees 30 1B 7/1/09 9
Mike Aviles Royals 28 IF 7/7/09 9
Rafael Furcal Cardinals 35 SS 3/13/13 15
T.J. Rivera Mets 28 2B 9/14/17 Pending
Corey Seager Dodgers 24 SS 5/14/18 Pending
SOURCE: Tommy John Surgery Database
*Includes only players who were injured while playing in majors, had surgery on their throwing arms, and returned to majors.

Rivera played six minor-league games on a rehab assignment in early July but was soon shut down due to elbow soreness. Seager is expected to be fully recovered in time for spring training. Of the rest, the average return is just under 10 months. The timing of the surgery relative to the offseason can distort that somewhat, though, on the other hand, just two position players at any level have returned in under 10 months since 2014. Womack has always been an outlier, given that no position player of any stripe has ever matched his recovery time. (Outfielders Jay Buhner and Carl Crawford did return in seven months, but those are outside my aforementioned timeframe). The two other players who underwent surgery in the fall, Olmedo and Izturis, both returned in late June the following season. Obviously, every recovery is different and complications can arise, but a ballpark estimate for Gregorius would be sometime between late June and the All-Star break.

His absence throws creates considerable intrigue about how the Yankees might approach the offseason. Having reset its luxury-tax rate and shed about $45 million worth of salaries (see Craig Edwards’ accounting here), the team is expected to be active in the free-agent market. Manny Machado was already anticipated to be a potential target, much more so than Bryce Harper given the Yankees’ outfield depth. Now?

The 26-year-old Machado moved back to shortstop full time this year, with mixed results defensively (-18 DRS and -7.2 UZR in 96 games as an Oriole, 6 DRS and 0.8 UZR in 51 games as a Dodger, replacing Seager) but a strong showing offensively (a career-high 140 wRC+ on .297/.367/.538 hitting). He’s claimed that he’d consider a return to third base for the right team. With Gregorius under club control for one more season and third baseman Miguel Andujar coming off an impressive rookie season offensively (.297/.328/.527, 27 homers, 128 wRC+) — if also struggling defensively (-25 DRS, -16.0 UZR) — the Yankees would have some hard decisions about how to fit all three onto one roster, if they were to beat out other suitors for Machado’s services.

Gregorius’ half-season absence, though, has seemingly half of the Twittersphere dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on Machado’s contract with the Yankees, but it’s not as though replacing the incumbent requires investing the $200 million or $300 million or whatever it’s going to take to ink Machado. Second baseman Gleyber Torres is a natural shortstop himself, one who filled in adequately during Gregorius’ heel injury; the Yankees could slide him over and go the stopgap route at second base. Prospect-turned-suspect Tyler Wade hasn’t hit much in his sporadic opportunities (.161/.218/.250 in 133 PA spread over two seasons), but the Yankees do believe he has a big-league future and pairing him with next year’s edition of Brandon Drury (who was traded to Toronto) or Neil Walker (who will be a free agent) is an option to weather Gregorius’s absence. Other relevant pending free agents who could fit the bill as temporary solutions include shortstops Adeiny Hechavarria (whom the Yankees acquired in August and used as Andujar’s caddy) and Jose Iglesias — and second basemen such as Daniel Descalso, Ian Kinsler, DJ LeMahieu, and Jed Lowrie.

Still, until Machado figures out where he’s headed, you can expect that just about any mention of Gregorius will include a check-in on the marquee free agent. That’s probably not fair, but it’s inevitable nonetheless.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Roger McDowell Hot Foot
4 years ago

The other part of this is that Gregorius is a free agent after 2019. That seems to leave an even wider range of possibilities. On the one hand the Yankees could try to leverage the injury for an even bigger discount than the “hometown” one he’s already rumored to want, and sign him to a below-market extension right now. On the other hand, you could see them signing Machado while planning to use the half-season rental of a returning Gregorius as a deadline trade chip. Who knows?

CC AFCmember
4 years ago

Just seems overly ambitious to try to use Didi as a deadline chip. For one thing, the Yankees project as a contender, so why would they want to trade Didi to boost another contender?

For another thing, half a season of a pending free agent position player hasn’t proven to be worth a hell of a lot recently. You’d have to let him come back and then play a little before the deadline to show he’s healthy to get anything of value before the deadline. So that also raises the question of how you get him reps if Gleyber, Manny, and Andujar are there. Then, if all that goes right, and he doesn’t suffer any setbacks or perform poorly due to rust/lack of complete recovery, you’re trading maybe 1-1.5 WAR of a position player at the deadline to a team you’re hoping to contend with.

4 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

More likely they just plan on Didi returning to action as if he were a deadline rental. Worry about ABs for the guys later – Andujar can get games at 1B or DH, or maybe one of them is hurt, or uses a few extra days off down the stretch.

Pepper Martin
4 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Before this new about Dido, I had assumed the Yankees’ plan was to sign Machado, play him at third, and move Andujar to first.

4 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Yeah, I think the more likely solution is that Machado allows Didi to take it slow in returning, and once he’s fully back post ASB, you’ve likely got a different situation and moving Andujar should be able to help somewhere. Maybe Voit doesn’t pan out and Andujar moves to 1B? Maybe your OF gets dinged up again and you experiment with Andujar in LF?
Having competent bats that can field is a problem worth having. The Astros found at-bats for Marwin Gonzalez when he was hitting despite having Altuve/Correa/Bregman. Stuff happens. It’s good to have depth.

4 years ago

Didi would be fabulous Insurance, in any case. theyd have three guys who could play literally anywhere in the inield, and of course both Machado and andujar have bats that can play at 1B straight up. Or in case of an outfield injury, you can put Stanton out there full-time move Andjuar to DH, and not miss a Beat. Trade deadline cost…zero

I mean it’s a little fantasy baseball-ish, sure, but they could rest a different good player every single night down the stretch to keep him fresh, and still roll out a ridiculous starting 9.

4 years ago

This was where my mind went too. As DZWHHROP (ha) notes below, you could see them non-tendering him. Or they could just hang onto him and figure he’ll be there for the stretch run. Or they could sign him to a 2-year injury discount. Or they could sign Machado and do any of the other things, plus they could trade him down the stretch as you note.

One they can’t do…they probably can’t trade him right now for anything of value because who–other than the Yankees–would be willing to absorb that arb salary and also trade something of value for a guy who might not play at all next year?