New York Yankees: Time to lock up Didi Gregorius

(Photo Credit: Arturo Pardavila III)

It was an unforgettable night for Didi Gregorius even if it proved to be a nightmarish Yankee Stadium debut for Giancarlo Stanton. Because while the latter went hitless in five at-bats with five strikeouts, Gregorius drove in eight runs while belting two separate three-run home runs in an 11-4 drubbing of the Tampa Bay Rays.

The accomplishment was the most amount of RBI by a Yankee since Alex Rodriguez drove in 10 back in 2005, and the most by a Yankees' shortstop in franchise history. Here the depth of the Yankees' prodigious lineup was in full display: despite the five strikeouts by Giancarlo Stanton—the first Platinum Sombrero in his career—Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge, and Gregorius combined for eight out of the total 11 runs scored. 

But Gregorius's offensive onslaught was a confirmation of what many people were suspecting: a top-tier shortstop in the lineup and in the field, and it's time to give him the respect he deserves.

Keep him while he's in his prime

In retrospect, this may have been the greatest trade in Brian Cashman's tenure as GM.

The Yankees were desperate to find a replacement following Derek Jeter's retirement at the end of the 2014 season. In December of that offseason, the Yankees shipped relief pitcher Shane Greene to the Detroit Tigers, who sent southpaw pitching prospect Robbie Ray to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who then sent Gregorius to the Yankees. 

The Yankees' acquired Gregorius while hoping there was still untapped offensive potential. Fast forward three years and not only has that potential been unleashed, but has become a steady part of his game just as much as his defense. He's averaged 14 home runs per season as a Yankee and a .278 average over the course of those four years, posting a combined Offensive WAR of 10.1 the past two years. He's also been at the forefront of some of the biggest moments of the Yankees' first deep playoff run since being swept out of the 2012 ALCS.

Gregorius has one year left on his contract before entering arbitration in 2019. He's making $8.5m in 2018 and if his on-field production for the season matches that of the past two years, he is expected to receive a significant raise. He still has another two to three years of prime years of production at age 28 and as he stands now, his current market value lists he is due for a contract in the ballpark of five years, $86m.

That's a price the Yankees should jump at. If the two parties secure an extension at that price, Gregorius will provide a far cheaper option than the likes of Manny Machado, who is expected to demand a king's ransom in free agency at the end of the 2018 season. They won't get the flashy style of play seen in Machado's game, but the Yankees will get a steady, confident style of play that has served Gregorius well in pinstripes.

Front-load the extension

If the Yankees front-load a potential extension, it will serve two purposes for the franchise: they will dedicate most of the money to the years where they know they'll get the production that matches the value while avoiding an albatross contract at the downswing of Gregorius' career.

That's not to say Gregorius will suddenly become unreliable after his age-30 season, but after a cold 2017 offseason leading up to the 2018 season, we've seen teams hesitant to deal out long-term contracts to players exiting their prime. That's because a player's prime is roughly estimated to be in a five-year window from 25 to 30 years old, with a steady decrease in offensive output beginning at the age-31 season.

And at 28 years old, Gregorius still has yet to reach a ceiling. 2017 saw a career best in home run totals (25) and RBI (87) while missing 26 games due to an injured shoulder sustained during the World Baseball Classic. Is there a 30 home run, 100 RBI season in him? Could he score 100 runs while at the heart of one of the top offensive lineups in baseball?

If the Yankees front-load a contract extension, they shift the odds in their favor. they will get the production from Gregorius when he's at his most valuable instead of throwing empty money at a player who's exiting his prime years.

Because the Yankees and their fans don't need another binding Jacoby Ellsbury contract.

Final Thoughts

Gregorius is a cornerstone of a championship-caliber Yankees team. His burgeoning offensive production has finally caught up with his Gold Glove-caliber defense. His .444 start to the 2018 season seems to show Gregorius is entering a next level of production, one that could catapult him into the conversation of "elite" shortstops throughout the league. 

The Yankees would do well to re-sign Gregorius while he produces at this level. It buys them time to further develop Gleyber Torres and Tyler Wade as they acclimate themselves to the demands and expectations that inevitably comes with playing in the Bronx.

But the Yankees should consider themselves lucky to have a shortstop who silenced the doubters and critics. He's become one of the most beloved players in a clubhouse that has shown a youthful exuberance and looseness that hadn't been seen in a decade. He won't be the twenty-year incumbent Derek Jeter was, and that's perfectly fine. 

Because the man who was heralded as Jeter's heir has left his own indelible mark on Yankees' history. These are the days of Didi Gregorius, and the Yankees should extend them for however long they can. 

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