In one day the New York Yankees just might have found their replacements for Derek Jeter and David Robertson, the latter of whom just happened to replace Mariano Rivera. They did well to turn a back-end starter they found out of a junior college JV team, Shane Greene, into an everyday shortstop, Didi Gregorius, and to beat out a crowded field that wanted the services of free-agent lefthanded reliever Andrew Miller. Neither player, however, assures that New York will be much closer to making the playoffs for the first time in three years in 2015, meaning the Yankees still have more moves to make.
Gregorius, acquired from the Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade that also included the Tigers, will turn 25 in February. On skills alone, he is a defensive upgrade on Jeter, but his offensive game remains very much a work in progress. He is a career .243 hitter after 724 big-league plate appearances. He doesn’t hit lefthanded pitching (.184), he doesn’t hit relief pitching (.235) and he is poor hitter when hitters should hit their best – when they put the first pitch or a 1-and-0 pitch into play (.252).
That doesn’t mean Gregorius won’t hit. The Yankees were right to take a shot at a young player with talent who still is learning how to play instead of sinking money into Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew or another downside veteran shortstop on the free agent market. Gregorius’ offensive problems, as suggested by his lack of pop early in counts, may be more approach-related than skill-related. He may not hit much more than he has shown, but it’s too early in his career to say with any certainty that he won’t get better – even much better.
Last season New York tied with Detroit for the worst OPS out of the shortstop position (.579). Gregorius’ career OPS is .680, so consider this an incremental upgrade. The defensive gain is even bigger. Gregorius has very good range and is especially terrific on pop-ups.
As for the cost of Gregorius, chalk this up as an under-the-radar win for New York’s player development people. Greene, who is headed to the Tigers, was undrafted out of high school and found his way to the University of West Florida. But when he blew out his elbow after a 7.71 ERA there, he lost his scholarship and transferred to Daytona Beach Community College. He wound up on the junior varsity team of the junior college while working his way back from surgery.
One day in 2009, just prior to the draft, Greene was throwing a bullpen session near his high school in Orlando. A Yankees scout, Jeff Deardorff, just happened to be there that day to see another pitcher. Deardorff had known Greene since the latter was nine years old. So Greene asked Deardorff to take a look at him and, if he liked what he saw, to put in a good word for him at the University of Central Florida, where Greene hoped to transfer next.
Greene had a friend catch him. His buddy’s 10-year-old sister manned a radar gun. After one pitch Deardorff asked the girl, “How much?”
“Ninety-two,” was the answer.
Deardorff was so impressed he called up Damon Oppenheimer, New York's scouting director, and asked if Greene could be included in a pre-draft workout the team was holding in Tampa. Oppenheimer agreed. The more the Yankees watched him throw the more they were convinced they had a rare sleeper in the draft. In fact, only one other club, the Angels, knew about Greene at all.
“The hard part is when you have a player like that, who not everybody knows about, when do you make the decision to use the pick on him?” Oppenheimer said. “How long do you wait? I think Jeff was getting anxious.”
The Yankees picked Greene in the 15th round. They signed him for $100,000, even though he hadn’t pitched competitively that year.
Five years later, New York turned that gamble into Jeter’s replacement. Greene has a very good sinker, but the Yankees had to convince him that it’s not good enough to use as his primary offering. Once pitching coach Larry Rothschild persuaded him that he should work off his nasty slider and not his two-seamer – to pitch “backward” -- Greene began looking like a legitimate back-end big league starter. He finished 5-4 with a 3.78 ERA and 9.3 K/9 in 78 2/3 innings.
In the 29-year-old Miller, the Yankees made another savvy move. He’s a younger version of the Giants’ Jeremy Affeldt, a lefthanded troubleshooter who is a manager’s best friend, especially in October. If the Dodgers had Miller last year, for instance, they would have been more likely to beat St. Louis in the Division Series. (Lefty relievers Scott Elbert and J.P. Howell both gave up two earned runs while getting only four outs apiece for Los Angeles in its four-game loss to the Cardinals. The 35-year-old Affeldt, meanwhile, made 11 scoreless appearances to lower his postseason ERA with San Francisco to 0.69 and help them win the World Series for the third time in five seasons.)
If Miller can get four years and $39 million, could New York possibly fork over even more money to keep Robertson? That’s a key question, because if the answer is no, the Yankees haven’t upgraded their 2015 team very much at all with this move. What they’ve done is exchanged Robertson for Miller, some money saved and a draft pick (because Miller was traded at midseason, from Boston to Baltimore, he was not eligible for the qualifying offer that Robertson received, and rejected, from New York. Thus, the Yankees will not have to give up a draft pick for signing him. Any team that signs a player who declines a qualifying offer, other than that player's most recent team, must forfeit a pick in next year's draft).
Robertson threw 64 1/3 innings last year and pitched more than one inning eight times. Miller threw 61 1/3 innings and pitched more than one inning eight times. They were born one month apart and both turn 30 early next season. It’s a wash for 2015.
But remember, no games are scheduled for tomorrow. The Yankees shouldn’t be done yet. Signing Robertson to put together a Royals-style endgame – featuring Miller, All-Star righty Dellin Betances and Robertson – would bring October a lot closer. The same effect could result from stepping out of their preferred winter game plan and reaching for free agent ace Max Scherzer. Consider the additions of Gregorius and Miller a good day for New York, but it could be an even better one depending on what comes next.