Report: Didi Gregorius will join the Yankees in a three-team deal that sends Shane Greene to Detroit and Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba to Arizona. We had heard that teams had more interest in Gregorius than in the D-backs’ other three major league shortstops, but I had taken that to mean that they liked Gregorius more as a value proposition. Turns out he is the shortstop moved by the team, but not at a discount. And because all is at peace in the universe, the player famously likened by Kevin Towers to Derek Jeter will indeed be the one particular player to take Jeter’s place.
If the D-backs had confidence that they could move Gregorius at a tolerable price, it may have helped with their recent decision to tender Cliff Pennington a contract for his final arbitration year. The way things stand, we can anticipate Chris Owings at short, Aaron Hill at second, Pennington backing them both up, and Nick Ahmed shuttling between Reno and Phoenix while waiting to take over for Pennington (or for Owings, if Hill eventually gets moved and Owings shifts to second).
In some respects, trading Gregorius is a lost opportunity. He is an extremely rare thing: an infielder (non-1B, I mean) who bats exclusively from the left side. He has also sported an uncommon platoon split, even as a lefty. And as a player who is particularly useful at particular times, he could be used in such a way that his production could surpass his skills — on a rate basis, at least. In September, Gregorius looked like the linchpin of an effective 4-man, 3-position time share:
Career, Gregorius has been an above-average hitter against righties (102 wRC+) but tremendously awful against lefties (33 wRC+). The difference is even more pronounced this year (92 wRC+ against RHP, 10 wRC+ against LHP). Gregorius is caught in the middle between being a full-time starter and being a part-time player. Fortunately for us, we can make the most of Didi’s strengths while minimizing the effect of his one very significant weakness…That sets the stage for a 4-man, 3-position time share, with Gregorius getting most of the starts at shortstop, Owings splitting time between short and second, Aaron Hill starting most days at second but getting some starts at third, and Lamb starting most days at third base.
Against right-handers, Gregorius seems to be an average hitter, at worst. And while that makes him useful to a team with multiple options and an openness to platoon, he has shown enough in his major league career, regardless of its brevity, for us to know that he’s never going to be an asset against left-handed pitching.
In addition, advanced defensive statistics never quite bought into Gregorius’s reputation as an above-average defender. His UZR/150 pegged him at slightly below average for his career (-3.3), and he did not seem to improve there. It’s a small sample (the equivalent of one year’s worth), and I don’t want to discount the possibility that intermittent playing time could have wreaked havoc on his fielding — these guys are human beings. Nonetheless, we use statistics like batting average because our memories (by definition, weighted toward certain events) can be misleading.
All in all, Gregorius’s track record in the majors paints a picture of a helpful, good-not-great player, but one who will cause some stress on his team’s roster. In trade, you would expect to get something of value for multiple cheap years of such a player. But you wouldn’t expect to get a lot.
The return of Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba is less than a lot, but more than a little. Where they fit into the D-backs system and what we can expect from them I leave to Jeff (and make sure to grab Episode 8 of The Pool Shot tonight or tomorrow), but there’s enough public information to know that the D-backs made out well.
Leyba just turned 19, and from what I can gather, he’s a long way away. Pushed to Low A quickly, he was excellent there in a small 116 at bat sample (.914 OPS), but he’s still got some physical growth to accomplish before moving up the ladder. He’s been called a “potential utility player” with a ceiling of “second-division regular” (Jordan Gorosh) and “one dimensional” with an “uncanny knack for getting the bat to the ball” (Mark Anderson). If his ceiling is fringy and his ETA is more like 2019, Baseball America’s recent ranking of him as #5 in the Tigers organization probably says more about the Tigers than about Leyba; still, he’s welcome depth, and any prospect with a plus tool is worth something real.
Ray is the player around which this trade really revolves. Say what you will about Kevin Towers’s offseason last year, but the most acrimony in saber circles last winter was reserved for Detroit’s trade of Doug Fister to the Nationals. Reports surfaced that there were uncontacted teams out there willing to better the Nationals’ offer for Fister, which may or may not be true; what we can say is that many were very underwhelmed by the return the Tigers received, which was headed by Ray. Also in there was Ian Krol, a lefty reliever with limited upside, and Steve Lombardozzi, a fringy utility infielder with almost no value. In other words: Ray.
Either the Tigers really liked Ray, or they didn’t like Fister nearly as much as just about everyone else; the latter seems strange, because the Tigers had traded for Fister just two years prior. The real answer is probably “some of both,” but one is still left with the conclusion that just one year ago, Robbie Ray was enough to two cost-controlled years of a solid #2 pitcher. That’s a high endorsement.
It’s hard to square that with Detroit’s apparent current evaluation of Ray, which is that he’s not quite as valuable as Shane Greene, who was roughly average as an old rookie with the Yankees last year, and who has mediocre minor league numbers. Maybe Greene’s improvement, simultaneous with his promotion, is legit. But chances are it’s not, and that should have affected his market value. (By the way: apparently the D-backs turned down a Gregorius/Greene swap. Well played by the D-backs, I think, as they really do not need an extra Vidal Nuno, especially after acquiring Jeremy Hellickson.)
So at this point, who is Ray? Ray’s minor league walk rates are right on that border between “troubling” and “trouble,” and whether he’s able to keep it under 4 walks per 9 innings could determine whether he sticks as a starter. He managed 160 strikeouts in 142 innings (10.14 K/9) in 2013 at High-A and Double-A with the Nationals, but that dipped to just 94 strikeouts in 129 innings (6.56 K/9) between Triple-A and the majors with Detroit. The “Pitch Values” stats at FanGraphs indicate that all four of Robbie Ray’s pitches were severely below average in his limited time in the majors in 2014, which is not a good sign. Fringy control like Ray’s can play, but only if he’s missing bats.
That doesn’t mean he’s not still a good pitching prospect (although maybe the D-backs should send him back to Double-A, where Chase Anderson caught lightning in a bottle, rather than trot him out in Reno). Control can be taught, and the stats are so erratic on his strikeout rates that it’s hard to draw any conclusions. What the D-backs have in Ray now is a decent shot at a productive starter (30%?), and on top of that, a chance of being a helpful reliever (40%). In other words, he’s Andrew Chafin, but with a little less control and a little more “stuff.” With waves of starting pitching due in D-backs uniforms next summer, it’s unlikely that Ray will be “needed.” But even if that comes to pass, I’d much rather see Ray get those innings than to see them thrown by Zeke Spruill or a similarly low-ceiling’ed prospect.
Ultimately, this trade was about kicking the can. The D-backs have needs, but it also had two big logjams: at short, and in its overstuffed current and future relief corps. The first was the situation most at a head, especially given the efforts I assume the D-backs made over the last 12 months to sort it out. It may be that by solving this logjam the D-backs added to the second one, but that’s okay; it doesn’t matter how often you trade if you’re not paying a transaction cost. Gregorius for Ray straight up would have felt like a loss, but with Leyba tossed in to help make up for the loss of Andrew Velazquez, this trade seems very fair.
If the D-backs weren’t open to platooning Gregorius in 2015, trading him away doesn’t make the 2015 worse, regardless of whether they were going to play him full time or not at all. Just as the D-backs would be better off grabbing a high risk/high reward pitcher in free agency, they did well to grab a lottery ticket in Ray. In hindsight, this trade will either look really good (if Ray pans out) or really bad (if he doesn’t). Right now, it looks like the D-backs got a solid deal, 100 cents on the dollar. Considering that the D-backs may have felt like they needed to make a move, not doing so at a loss is a win all by itself.
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