Didi Gregorius as DJ LeMahieu fallback creates tanalizing Yankees scenario

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Every now and then, a caller to sports talk radio makes you think.

Of course, the likelihood of that phenomenon increases when the caller is Didi Gregorius.

The popular former Yankees shortstop, who spent 2020 with the Phillies, generated buzz Thursday when he went on “The Michael Kay Show” (on 98.7 FM ESPN New York) and spoke of his former team, saying, “All I can say is I had a really good time playing there. But at the end, it’s in their hands. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future with [DJ] LeMahieu or with the Yankees and all that stuff? They’re making their decision of what they plan to do.”

The Yankees plan to re-sign LeMahieu as long as common economic ground can be found — you might have heard they’re cutting payroll in the wake of the financially hurtful 2020 — and pay no mind to the deliberate nature of these negotiations. You’ll notice that none of the top free agents have signed yet as the players and owners try to determine the shape and schedule of the 2021 campaign.

If the two sides can’t reach a compromise, though, would the Yankees actually be better off diversifying their LeMahieu funds among, say, Gregorius and Masahiro Tanaka?

I’d still take my chances with LeMahieu. Yet the notion tantalizes as a Plan B.

When we last saw Gregorius in pinstripes, he was slow to recover from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in the fall of 2018. His abbreviated 2019 saw a decline on both sides of the ball, and that led to the Yankees parting ways with the man who had succeeded Derek Jeter better than anyone could have reasonably expected.

In 2020, reunited with his first Yankees skipper, Joe Girardi, in Philadelphia, Gregorius looked far more like his old self, slashing .284/.339/.488 in 60 games (yes, he played in every game) while slightly improving his defense.

Picture him giving the Yankees’ lineup some badly needed lefty balance. Allowing Gleyber Torres to move back to second base. Tweeting with those likably silly emojis after every Yankees victory.

Then envision Tanaka returning to provide his dosage of reliability and leadership to the Yankees. Doesn’t excite you as much? You’re still sore over his lousy October? Eh. I say he deserves a mulligan after a year that challenged him greatly, between some personal adversity during the shutdown and the concussion he suffered just moments after spring training 2.0 began. For sure, the Yankees badly could use more starting pitching depth.

These are nice images … except they don’t include LeMahieu, the Yankees’ top performer of the past two seasons and a top four finisher in the American League Most Valuable Player voting both years, a feat to which only he can boast in that time frame. An icon of durability, consistency and versatility on a team not possessing an abundance of those attributes.

You can find red flags if you search for them. LeMahieu’s 2020 expected slugging percentage, based on exit velocity and launch angle, was .462 (thanks, Baseball Savant), a considerable drop from the actual .590. His defense slipped a touch at both third base and second base, and he’s 32. Then again, the 30-year-old Gregorius carries some concerns, too, with an actual slugging percentage of .488 and an expected .396. And Tanaka, also 32, could just be slipping, with the playoffs Exhibit A.

I’d go with the best player of the bunch, which LeMahieu is at this juncture, and count on more arbitrage aptitude to find starting pitching depth and lefty hitting (and I think Brett Gardner will return for a pay cut). That doesn’t mitigate how curious I’d be to see a Yankees club with a superior defensive alignment as well as better offensive equilibrium, not to mention the ginormous standing ovation Gregorius would get at Yankee Stadium with fans once again occupying it.

Thanks to Sir Didi from Curacao for calling in. Maybe he’ll wait out the Yankees-LeMahieu staring contest, just like the rest of us.

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