We knew the Yankees would have to get creative this offseason, with payroll commitments already pushing $170 million dollars and the lack of overall hitting talent on the market—most of which already went to the intra-division Red Sox—limiting the team's options as it is. On Friday, when the Yankees traded for former Arizona shortstop Didi Gregorius and then in typical Yankee fashion signed left-handed reliever Andrew Miller to the largest contract ever for a non-closing reliever, they filled two roster holes that badly needed to be filled.
The needs at those two positions were certainly pressing ones: Justin Wilson, acquired from the Pirates for Francisco Cervelli on Nov. 12, was the only lefty in the bullpen before Miller signed, and the relief corps as a whole was looking a little thin up until the Yankees finalized the deal with Miller. Meanwhile, with Derek Jeter out the door and his heir apparent nowhere to be found within the Yankees' barren wasteland of a farm system, it was clear the team had to turn to either the free agent market or a trade to find a viable substitute. They chose the latter, and only had to give up a rookie starter—albeit a very good one, at least based on last year's statistics—to do so.
Miller, who signed for $36 million over four years, posted a career-low 2.02 ERA last season while pitching for two other AL East teams, the Red Sox and the Orioles. The move fell in line with the Yankees' history of doling out big contracts to setup men, after they signed Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million deal in January of 2011—a move that yielded mixed results after Soriano struggled during his first year in New York but settled down after that.
Friday's big deal might produce more success this time around. Miller, despite a history of poor performance as a starter-reliever with the Tigers and Marlins from 2006-2010, seems to have found his groove after settling on his reliever role. (He hasn't started a game since 2011.) 2014 marked the third straight year of an ERA drop for the left-hander, and he did it in the AL East for two teams with very difficult ballparks to pitch in. That will prepare him as much as anything for life at Yankee Stadium, where he's allowed four runs in 11 career innings.
One of the most interesting aspects to consider as a result of this deal is whether or not the addition of Miller will prevent the Yankees from bringing back David Robertson, their reliable reliever who saved 39 games (in 44 attempts) in his first season in the closer role after setting up Mariano Rivera for several years previously. Sources told ESPN's Buster Olney that if Robertson is willing take fewer dollars, the Yankees will make an effort to bring him back, but they're prepared to move on and work with what they have if need be.
When it comes to the Gregorius trade, the Yankees really had no choice but to go through with that swap once the Tigers got involved and convinced the D-Backs to follow through. It comes down to this: Trading for average position players isn't easy. Trading for average shortstops is harder. Trading for an average shortstop to fill a vacancy at the position and giving up a starter with a 4.39 career minor league ERA to do so is a no-brainer, which is why this deal is a huge win for a team that badly needed someone in the six hole.
Obviously, Gregorius' glove is where most of his value comes from, which is fine. But simply looking at the shortstop's offensive statistics from last season (.226/.290/.363) doesn't really paint the full picture.
Where to begin? First of all, Gregorius had a .332 on-base percentage in 2013, when he accumulated 105 more plate appearances than he had in 2014. The shortstop also had an outrageous .257 BABIP last season, which is not only a mile below the MLB average but also well short of Gregorius' career norm. He had a .290 average on balls in play in 2013, and after 2008 he never dropped below that number at any stop in the minors with more than 100 PAs until Triple-A in 2012.
Moving to the American League East probably won't hurt his chances either. According to ESPN's park factor statistics, Coors Field and Chase Field, the latter being Gregorius' home field for the last couple seasons, actually ranked first and second in the majors in terms of hitter-friendliness, which might indicate that switching divisions would be harmful. But the three other stadiums in the division, AT&T Park, Dodger Stadium and Petco Park, all rank in the bottom six in the league. Non-coincidentally, the three teams from those stadiums—the Giants, Dodgers and Padres—all ranked in the top 10 in team ERA last season. Any way you spin it, moving to the AL East from the NL West is an advantageous change for a hitter.
But Gregorius' defense is his calling card, no question about it. Even though advanced zone rating metrics say otherwise, the shortstop did post a neutral 0 defensive runs saved in 2014, and he's also a significant upgrade (as would be the case with almost any shortstop signed) over Jeter, who cost his team an incredible 50 runs on defense during the last four years, per the DRS stat.
Gregorius is also only 24 years old (he'll turn 25 in February), which could indicate that he'll improve on both sides of the ball as he adjusts even more to major league pitching and learns to navigate the left side of the Yankee Stadium infield. Though it might be a weird sight to see someone other than The Captain roaming the area left of second base, Yankee fans can at least take solace in the fact that their team is far improved at the position because of Friday's trade.