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Didi Gregorius’ injury isn’t crippling, but it still hurts the Yankees

Gregorius might be replaceable in the long term, but he’s the team’s best shortstop by far right now.

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Did Gregorius’ short tenure with the New York Yankees has been a feel-good story (except for those who hate the Yankees so much that it holds no appeal). He came to New York in 2015 to fill Derek Jeter’s position, and struggled to both hit and field at expected levels. In 2016, though, Gregorius took his offensive game to a new level, and became a legitimately good player on a team that lacked young (or just not old) talent. Recently, I wrote that he is one of the Yankees’ best players right now, and ESPN’s Andrew Marchand posited that Gregorius may not be too far away from an All-Star bid.

Gregorius’ explosive growth and maturity make his recent injury all the more confusing. He’ll be out until at least May with a shoulder injury, leaving the team without a starting shortstop during that time. The injury hopefully won’t be too complicated or prolonged, and seems like a relatively simple one to treat. But given the Yankees’ odd situation — with both major league and minor league talent — Gregorius’ injury means a lot of different things for the Yankees.

In terms of immediate value, the Yankees are losing an above-average shortstop who provided the team with consistent production last season. Per FanGraphs, Gregorius’ 2.7 WAR ranked 14th in baseball, placing him in the same vicinity as players like Trevor Story and Troy Tulowitzki. Gregorius isn’t an offensive monster by any means — his 98 wRC+ ranked right around league average for his position — but these numbers represent a significant jump in production from earlier years. He set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, and a number of other statistics in 2016.

Perhaps most importantly, he was a key contributor to a 2016 New York team that lacked offensive punch. The Yankees ranked 21st in wRC+ last year, and would have been even worse if not for Gregorius. While he isn’t a player who can take a team from mediocre offensive production to above-average, his production is still valuable. For a club lacking in this department, his skills made an even bigger difference.

From a long-term perspective, though, this injury is relatively minor. The Yankees are stocked with prospects, and some of their best players are at Gregorius’ position. According to Baseball America, New York has two shortstop prospects, Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo, who rank in the top 100 in all of baseball. In terms of players who are nearly ready for immediate MLB contention, the Yankees also have Tyler Wade, who was expected to begin the season in the minor leagues as well. In fact, Gregorius’ injury serves as a reminder of just how much talent New York has at the shortstop position. If the team holds on to all these players, there may be something of a logjam in the immediate future.

However, Gregorius’ injury — since it happened so early in the year — places the Yankees in a difficult position. Neither Torres nor Mateo is ready to start the season in New York, and Wade may not be, either. As much as the Yankees may want to avoid rushing players into major-league play before they’re ready, the team still has to deal with the problem of not having a starting shortstop. There are potential solutions: Wade may be pressed into service, Ronald Torreyes has experience at the position, and Starlin Castro may be able to play some innings there as well. However, none of these potential solutions will be nearly as good as having Gregorius ready on opening day. It’s not that New York is light at the shortstop position, rather, it’s that this injury occurred at perhaps the worst time for their current talent.

2017 is something of a gap year for the Yankees. Since they’re waiting for current talent to develop, they’ll look to field the best possible team they can in two years. However, the team still has its sights set on the playoffs, and has a decent (if somewhat outside) shot of contending for a Wild Card spot. For that to happen, everything has to break right: FanGraphs projects New York to finish at 81-81, which would be something like two games out of the playoffs. That’s not an unbeatable mark, but it requires nearly everything going in the team’s direction. A Gregorius injury most definitely does not fit that description.

Gregorius missing a month of the season isn’t catastrophic for the Yankees. It certainly doesn’t hurt their long-term plans, and there’s a chance that it may not derail the 2017 season, either. However, it definitely hurts the team, and will put it at an extended disadvantage if Gregorius misses much more time. If this injury had happened in August, the Yankees may have been able easily replace their shortstop from their treasure trove of prospects. As it stands now, though, they’re scrambling to find a replacement.