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  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:
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?
Could the didi news trigger yankees’ interest in Machado? MM has played a much better ss in LA, is believed interested in yankees.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) October 12, 2018
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) October 12, 2018
— NY Daily News Sports (@NYDNSports) October 12, 2018
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.