Didi Gregorius has a new home, with a familiar manager. On Tuesday, the 29-year-old shortstop agreed to a one-year, $14 million deal with the Phillies, meaning that he’ll reunite with new skipper Joe Girardi, under whom he played from 2015-17 with the Yankees while developing into a strong two-way contributor. The short-term deal gives Gregorius a shot to rebuild his value after a subpar season in which he missed over two months due to a late-2018 Tommy John surgery and then hit for just an 84 wRC+, his lowest mark since his 2012 rookie season. It closes the door on a return to the Yankees, who declined to issue him a $17.8 million qualifying offer, and it’s a relatively low-cost bet on upgrading the Phillies middle infield, where the double-play tandem of Jean Segura and the recently non-tendered César Hernández both underperformed in 2019.
The Amsterdam-born, Curaçao-raised Gregorius had produced just 1.9 WAR in 191 games for the Reds (who signed him in 2007 and brought him to the majors in late ’12) and Diamondbacks (who acquired him in a three-team deal centered around Trevor Bauer in December 2012) before being dealt to the Yankees in December 2014; he arrived as part of a three-team deal that sent Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks and Shane Greene from the Yankees to Detroit. Given the nearly impossible task of filling the shoes of the just-retired Derek Jeter (to whom former Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers had audaciously compared Gregorius in 2012), he proved more than up to the task, quickly illustrating that he could cover far more ground at shortstop than the aging superstar, whose glovework was never his strength. Even with just an 89 wRC+ in 2015, Gregorius was worth a solid 3.1 WAR, 2.9 more than Jeter provided in his final season.
Developing a more pull-oriented approach with more consistent elevation of the ball, Gregorius’ left-handed swing played exceptionally well in Yankee Stadium at a time when balls began soaring out of the park at record rates. From 2016-18, Gregorius hit 72 homers, more than any other shortstop besides Manny Machado (107), Trevor Story (88), and Francisco Lindor (86), and over that span batted .277/.319/.472 (109 wRC+) with 8.8 UZR, and 11.6 WAR, seventh among shortstops. He set career highs with 27 homers, a 122 wRC+ (.268/.335/.494, the last two also highs), an 8.4% walk rate, and 4.7 WAR in 2018, but shortly after the Yankees were eliminated in the Division Series, the team announced he would need surgery on his right elbow.
His 2019 season debut on June 7 came inside of eight months following TJ surgery, making it one of the quickest returns by an infielder. Yet he hit just .238/.276/.441 with 16 homers in 344 PA overall, and just .207/.250/.420 for a 69 wRC+ from August 1 onward, managing just 0.9 WAR. He went 9-for-33 in the postseason, with a grand slam in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Twins.
Via Statcast, Gregorius’ quality of contact wasn’t the issue; he actually hit the ball a bit harder in 2019 than ’18, and in the air with a bit more frequency:
The big difference in his two seasons was what happened when he didn’t make contact. With his chase rate rising from 36.2% to a career-high 41.1%, Gregorius made less contact (67.0%) with pitches outside the zone than ever before, and matched his career high in swinging strike rate (11.4%) while setting a new high in strikeout rate (15.4%) even as his walk rate dipped back to 4.9% — hence the dent in his wOBA. The collection of stats paints a picture of a player who was pressing. Not that he ever admitted to it, but it wouldn’t be hard to understand why, given that Gregorius was attempting to demonstrate he was back to full health and worthy of a long-term contract after missing a good chunk of his walk year; in the spring, talks regarding an extension with New York had been scuttled.
Though Gleyber Torres‘ defensive metrics at shortstop were modest (-2.1 UZR, 1 DRS in 77 games), the Yankees apparently saw enough from him to be comfortable in returning the going-on-23-year-old to his natural position for 2020. Such an alignment would help to alleviate an infield logjam, by making DJ LeMahieu the regular at second base, the position he played while winning three Gold Gloves with the Rockies from 2015-18; he made 66 starts there in 2019, with another 75 at the infield corners. That would leave Luke Voit and Mike Ford to play first base, and Gio Urshela and Miguel Andújar to cover third base, with the latter, who missed nearly all of the 2019 season due to a torn right labrum, possibly subject to a move to first given his brutal defensive showing (-16.0 UZR, -25 DRS) as a rookie in ’18.
As for the Phillies, they recently non-tendered Hernández, who had yielded diminishing returns in recent seasons, declining from highs of 3.8 WAR (2016) and 111 wRC+ (’17) to 1.7 WAR and 92 wRC+ in ’19. While they signed Josh Harrison to a minor league deal late last month, and still have Scott Kingery, man of many positions, the addition of Gregorius — who also reportedly drew interest from the Brewers and Reds — means that the going-on-30-year-old Segura will move from shortstop to second base, where he spent 2016 with the Diamondbacks while setting career highs in WAR (5.0) and wRC+ (126). In 2019, he hit .280/.323/.420 for a 92 wRC+, an 18-point drop from the year before; his WAR dipped from 3.7 to 2.3 despite just a minor decline in defense (from 0.8 to -1.3, though via DRS the drop was from 5 to -5). Having both Segura and Gregorius in the lineup means getting walk rates of around 5% from both middle infielders, which could be a problem for a team on which only Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper walked more than 45 times.
Projection-wise, Gregorius is forecast to produce 2.5 WAR via ZiPS and 2.6 via Steamer, a performance that would be well worth the salary and would set the shortstop up for a multiyear deal, though probably nothing on the order of what he could have hoped as he put the finishing touches on his 2018 season. With Segura projected at 2.4 WAR but having recently been worth well more than that, the upside is a pair that could produce about 8 WAR instead of five, which is basically what the Phillies got from all of their second basemen and shortstops combined in 2019 (5.1 total).
The team still has to figure out what to do when it comes to third base, with Maikel Franco also non-tendered after a -0.6 WAR season, and in center field; Kingery will probably figure in the mix at one position or the other, perhaps keeping the hot corner warm for 2018 overall number three pick Alex Bohm, whom general manager Matt Klentak expects to arrive sometime in 2020. The Gregorius signing has reportedly taken the Phillies out of the hunt for Anthony Rendon, though they may still be “interested bystanders” when it comes to Josh Donaldson, which is a more plausible premise for a John Hughes movie featuring an unrequited crush at a high school dance than a major infield upgrade.
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.