The Yankees have held their own without several players that were set to be key components to the 2019 season. One of those players, Didi Gregorius, is getting very close to returning to action just over seven months after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Despite the Yankees infielders' early season success, Gregorius' absence was felt in numerous ways.
Before the injury, the Yankees believed they had Gregorius, a strong left-handed hitter amid a slew of right-handed batters, locked into the middle of the lineup, hoping he would continue his ascension as a star player in the game. Gregorius put up another great season in 2018, posting a career-high .829 OPS (122 OPS+). Gregorius launched 27 home runs last season and 25 in 2017, so his left-handed power bat was missed.
The Yankees defense has been a bit below average at shortstop, with all players that have manned the position in Gregorius's absence turning in a collective minus-2 defensive runs saved (DRS). Gregorius played to a minus-2 DRS for the entirety of last season.
Finally, the Yankees were without one of the team's leaders on a regular basis. Gregorius has become one of the veterans that young players respect, and acts as the infield general when he's on the field.
When Gregorius makes it back to the big leagues, he will no doubt assume his full-time starting role at shortstop. There is a chance that the Yanks will bring him along slowly after being activated from the injured list, which can be done with occasional off-days or by deploying him as the designated hitter on occasion.
Once Gregorius is back in the fold, the Yankees will have some decisions to make with its infield composition.
Gleyber Torres did a fine job filling in at shortstop for a bulk of the games Gregorius missed. While shortstop is Torres' natural position, he's not quite as good a defender as Gregorius (call it polish). In that vain, the thought of moving Torres back to second base, where he played predominantly in 2018, should be an easy one for the Yankees.
However, the Yankees have been using DJ LeMahieu at second base for much of the season. LeMahieu is a premier defender at second base, having won three Gold Glove awards during his time with the Rockies, and he happens to be hitting .313 on the season. Shifting Torres back to second base, would effectively decrease any defensive efficiency created by adding Gregorius back to the infield.
Torres and LeMahieu can each play third base, but Gio Urshela, who is hitting .331 in 151 plate appearances and has played excellent defense, is going to be difficult to remove from the lineup. Further, third base is Urshela's natural position, which would seemingly cement him at the hot corner for an abundance of games.
Even though crowded rosters tend to work out organically, there are no clear answers when it comes to distributing at-bats between players that deserve them.
As noted earlier, the Yankees will undoubtedly provide Gregorius full days off on occasion, which will open up space, and there is the ability that he and any of the other players DH in a rotation of sorts. Providing rest throughout the long grind of the season will only benefit the Yankees.
If the Yankees are looking to field the best defensive alignment for a given day, using LeMahieu at second base with Gregorius at short is the way to go. That would seemingly push Torres into DH duties on more days than not because his bat is too valuable to sit on the bench.
The only issue with assuming the Yanks will utilize the DH for Gregorius and Torres in most lineups is that the club will also want to use the role to spell players like Luke Voit, Gary Sanchez and possibly Clint Frazier. As such, adding Gregorius to the roster will likely mean the end of Kendrys Morales' short time with the club, as the Yanks can use LeMahieu as Voit's backup at first base and Morales simply offers nothing else to the club.
Playing time will become even more clouded as the Yankees regain its full roster with Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge beginning to make some progress for their returns. However, the Yankees don't need to worry about that right yet, but rather can enjoy the benefit of getting a defensively sound, left-handed hitter with power and one of the team's leaders back in the fold.