No one said replacing Derek Jeter would be easy. Even as the future Hall of Famer slowed down over the back nine of his career, his shadow loomed over his replacement to be named later. When you’re a 14-time All-Star and five-time World Series champion, it’s going to be awfully hard for whoever inherits that shadow to ultimately emerge. Didi Gregorius has stepped into the light this season.
Gregorius posted a nondescript season in Year One after Jeter, hitting .265/.318/.370 while starting nearly every game at shortstop for the Yankees. The performance was essentially right in line with what we saw from him in 183 games in Arizona, where he slashed .241/.314/.368 before being part of a three-team trade that sent Robbie Ray to the Diamondbacks and Shane Greene to the Tigers.
It’s not as though Gregorius was written off heading into his age-26 season, especially considering he carried a .287/.350/.452 line in 495 career plate appearances at the Triple A level, but few were projecting him to break out at the plate. Given what his realistic ceiling is as a major league hitter, that is exactly what has happened.
Through 327 plate appearances, Gregorius is hitting .297/.328/.462 with 11 homers, 19 doubles, 43 RBI and 41 runs. For the sake of comparison, Jeter hit .294/.355/.395 over the final seven seasons of his career, with an average of nine homers, 23 doubles, 54 RBI and 72 runs per season. Jeter had a few excellent seasons among those seven—2009 and ’12 stand out—but it’s not an embellishment to say that Gregorius has been better this season than the average version of Jeter was for his last seven years in the Bronx.
It didn’t start this way for Gregorius. Through April, he was hitting a paltry .224/.254/.343. That start, combined with his low—if even existent—draft-day stock helps explain why he remains on the waiver wire in so many leagues, despite the fact that he has turned around his season. It’s hard for draft-day afterthoughts who struggle in April to gain traction, especially at a shortstop position that has proved deeper than expected with the likes of Trevor Story, Eduardo Nunez, Jonathan Villar and Aledmys Diaz joining Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, new shortstop Manny Machado and a resurgent Ian Desmond in the ranks of locked-in starters. The fantasy community as a whole hasn’t been as desperate at the position as in recent years.
Gregorius started to get going in May, when he hit .287/.314/.396. He upped that to a blistering .337/.368/.535 in June with four homers and has kept it rolling in July, slashing .323/.362/.569 with three jacks this month. Since the start of June, he’s hitting .331/.366/.548, besting what we’ve seen from the big five at the position (Correa, Bogaerts, Lindor, Seager and Machado) across the board, save for Seager.
It would be a stretch to expect Gregorius to keep up this pace, but he doesn’t need to play at this level to maintain his fantasy value for the remainder of the season. In standard 5x5 formats, he has been more valuable than Danny Espinosa, Brandon Crawford, Zack Cozart, Addison Russell and Troy Tulowitzki. Even though shortstop is as deep as it has been in a long time—potentially in the history of the fantasy game—Gregorius should be able to find a home in most leagues.
Tyler Naquin, OF, Indians
The Indians have the best record in the AL thanks largely to a starting rotation that just might be the best in the majors. Francisco Lindor has turned into one of the best, if not the very best, shortstop in the league, but the team still needed more offense with Michael Brantley spending nearly the entire season on the shelf because of a shoulder injury. Naquin has provided that offense in the outfield. The 25-year-old is hitting .322/.383/.628 with 12 homers in 203 plate appearances, placing himself firmly in the AL Rookie of the Year race. He’s just barely below 50% owned, making him eligible for this column, but you’ll have to act fast if you want him on your team. Even if Brantley is able to return this season, Naquin’s spot in the lineup should be safe.
Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Mariners
Vogelbach was likely never going to make his way to the majors as a Cub. His only path with an NL team was at first base, and the Cubs have this first baseman named Anthony Rizzo who just might win the NL MVP this season. The team, in need of relief help, sent Vogelbach to the Mariners last week in exchange for Mike Montgomery. While the Mariners assigned the slugging first baseman to Triple A Tacoma, the expectation is he won’t be there very long. The 23-year-old hit .318/.425/.548 with 16 homers at Triple A Iowa before the trade, and then made an immediate splash with his new organization, going 3-for-3 with a homer, double and two RBI in his first game with the Rainiers. Now that the DH is an option for him, we should see him in the majors sooner rather than later.
Cameron Maybin, OF, Tigers
Maybin continues to rake for the Tigers, carrying a .327/.394/.393 slash line into the final week of July. Hitting second in a potent Detroit lineup, he has a ton of run-scoring upside and decent RBI potential, as well, with Ian Kinsler immediately in front of him. Maybin isn’t going to hit for power, but he’s going to do pretty much everything else while playing every day. That’s enough to make him attractive in all fantasy formats.
Francisco Cervelli, C, Pirates
Cervelli returned from the DL last week and has three hits in his first four games since getting back in the lineup. He doesn’t hit for much, if any, power, but we’ve seen over the last few seasons that he handles the bat well, especially for a catcher. He’s more valuable in OBP formats and with the position being such a wasteland this season, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give him a shot for the next couple of weeks to see what he can do. The Pittsburgh lineup, coupled with his on-base skills, makes him an asset in the run and RBI categories.
Trea Turner, 2B, Nationals
Turner has started five of Washington’s last six games, going 5-for-23 in that span. Those short-term results aren’t great, and he has had a spot open for him because Ryan Zimmerman is on the DL, which lets Dusty Baker get his talented youngster in the lineup while sliding Daniel Murphy over to first base. When Zimmerman returns, it’s likely that Turner will go back to the bench. The Nationals have been getting him work in the outfield, however, and it’s also possible that he’d get some starts in center field, where his athleticism should help him make a smooth transition. Turner is a top-10 prospect with all the promise that entails. If he has a regular spot in the lineup, he should be owned in all fantasy leagues.
Drew Smyly, SP, Rays
Smyly is 2-11 with a 5.32 ERA and 1.35 WHIP this season. I know that doesn’t exactly scream “pick this guy up now,” but there remains identifiable upside that makes him valuable in leagues with at least 12 teams. Most of that is tied up in his ability to miss bats. Smyly has 112 strikeouts in 111 2/3 innings this year, and 497 in 506 1/3 career frames. No matter what else he does, he reliably strikes out a batter per inning. There’s value in a guy like that in nearly every format. You can’t trust him in every start, but he’s so good with the whiff that it’s worth having him on your roster and picking your spots.
Zach Davies, SP, Brewers
The Brewers have been surprisingly competent this year, thanks in large part to three pieces in the rotation pitching better than anyone expected. Two of those pieces—Junior Guerra and Jimmy Nelson—are widely owned in fantasy leagues. The third, Davies, is not. Davies shut down the Cubs over the weekend, allowing one run on three hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings, picking up his seventh win of the season. The 23-year-old has a 3.64 ERA, 4.01 WHIP, 1.18 WHIP and 80 strikeouts against 26 walks in 99 innings. He’s not going to blow anyone away, but those are useful numbers in all non-shallow leagues.
Brandon Kintzler, RP, Twins
Kintzler doesn’t get many save opportunities for a Twins team that has the worst record in the AL, but when he does get a chance to close out a game he converts it. Kintzler is 8 for 8 in save opportunities this season, and has a cool 2.05 ERA and 1.01 WHIP to go along with that. He’s not of the typical power closer mold, striking out just 20 batters in 30 2/3 innings this season. That also serves to limit his fantasy ceiling. So long as he doesn’t get traded this week, though, he will be a closer the rest of the season. No matter you’re format, that gives him plenty of value.
Carlos Estevez, RP, Rockies
Estevez is a lot like Kintzler. He, too, is a closer for a bad team, though Colorado is a tier or two above Minnesota. That has served to keep his ownership rate low, even though any closer automatically has enough value to be owned in all fantasy
formats. While Kintzler gets by with his ERA and WHIP, though, Estevez does it all with strikeouts. He has whiffed 40 batters in 35 1/3 innings this season, while pitching to a 4.08 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Estevez is secure enough in his job, and the strikeout upside makes him a touch more attractive than Kintzler if you have your pick of the two.
Nate Jones, RP, White Sox
Kyle Barraclough, RP, Marlins
Tyler Thornburg, RP, Brewers
David Phelps, RP, Marlins
Hunter Strickland, RP, Giants
Brad Brach, RP, Orioles
Kelvin Herrera, RP, Royals
This is the latest group of non-closing relievers with rates and strikeout totals that are strong enough to carry fantasy value without picking up any saves. Jones and Thornburg could both be in line to get saves should their teams deal their current closers, but all eight listed above are worth your time.