On December 11 the Diamondbacks traded one of minor league baseball's highest-profile prospects — right-handed pitcher Trevor Bauer — in a three-team deal that netted them three players in return.
Two of those players — veteran lefty reliever Tony Sipp and fizzled top prospect Lars Anderson — are expected to play bit roles at best. It was the third player, Reds top shortstop prospect Didi Gregorius, who was the real prize for Arizona. According to D-Backs general manager Kevin Towers, "I said the only way I would talk about Trevor Bauer is if I could get Gregorius."
So what makes Gregorius so valuable? And why should Mets fans care about Arizona's likely shortstop of the future? Let's take a closer look and find out.
The 22-year-old lefty-hitting shortstop was signed by the Reds out of Curacao back in 2007. He's 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds with good — not great — tools, and is considered somewhat projectable thanks to good athleticism.
Defensively, he's got a great arm and exhibits good range at short. He's been prone to making sloppy errors but on balance he possesses premium defensive skill. At the plate he's a contact-oriented line-drive hitter, though his plate discipline is average at best and to this point he's shown a limited power game. While he's no burner on the basepaths, he's got enough speed to be a base stealer in the majors.
Since coming stateside in 2008, Gregorius has acquitted himself well at pretty much every level, batting somewhere between .280 and .300, registering strikeout rates in the low teens, stealing 10-15 bases, and showing flashes of power. In 2012 he reached the majors at age 22 and batted .300 over eight games.
The general consensus on Gregorius is that he's got the defensive tools and just enough bat to be a starting major league shortstop very soon. Opinions diverge, however, when it comes to his long-term power game. Reds fans who buy into his athleticism foresee 10+ homers annually. However, most observers see a career slugging percentage of .376 and isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .104 and project a glove-first shortstop in the mold of Elvis Andrus or Ruben Tejada. In either case, that's a valuable player.
Why Mets Fans Should Care
That brings us to the reason you should care: Mets top shortstop prospect Wilfredo Tovar. While the 5-foot-10, 160-pound 21-year-old doesn't quite fit the same bill physically as the toolsier Gregorius, he does feature a similar long-term profile. Tovar is a true shortstop prospect that projects to play the position in the majors in some capacity thanks to his outstanding defensive skills. While his lack of size limits his power potential, he boasts excellent contact ability and a strong eye at the plate, with enough foot speed to steal plenty of bases.
Tovar (.255/.317/.331) hasn't put up quite the offensive output as Gregorius (.271/.323/.376) throughout his minor league career, lacking the same amount of potency in his bat. However, it's important to remember that Tovar is on an appreciably younger growth curve, reaching Double-A — at age 20 — over a year sooner than Gregorius did. In fact, Tovar's .359 wOBA in his first full season at Hi-A in 2012 surpasses the .344 mark that Gregorius posted in his first extended exposure to Hi-A in 2011. Additionally, while Gregorius has very good defensive skills, Tovar is the rare plus-defender at the position.
With the kicker that Tovar lacks the same level of offensive projection, it's certainly defensible to say that the two shortstops possess relatively similar value propositions to a major league team in the near future — with Gregorius a shorter-term bet to reach The Show.
Going back to Towers, he provided some additional insight on the topic of acquiring young, cost-controlled shortstops in a Q&A with FanGraphs in the aftermath of the Bauer-Gregorius trade:
"Talking to [Scouting Director] Ray [Montgomery] about what the pool of those types players will be this year, and next year and follows going forward, there’s just not a lot of inventory. And to find a shortstop or a catcher, or a center fielder, that you think that could stay at those positions, they’re very hard to acquire. Sometimes you have to overpay for them, because of that lack of inventory."
"If you’ve got an offense like Texas, you can live with an Elvis Andrus who doesn’t hit for power or even a huge average, but has ability to get on base. He can obviously play quality defense. I think there’s always a place for those guys. In a perfect world, you’d like to have a team where you don’t have to worry about getting a lot of offense from your shortstop. You just want somebody to save runs for you. You want them to save outs, as well as pitches for your pitcher out there on the mound."
This mindset clearly isn't an anomaly in today's game. Young, cost-controlled 'up the middle' players — especially shortstops — are considered extremely valuable commodities. There are numerous examples all over the league of this:
The Rangers refusing to part with either the aforementioned Andrus or top shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar in a deal for Justin Upton.
Even after a 2012 season in which he fell flat on his face, many teams remain interested in acquiring Dee Gordon from the Dodgers.
Closer to home, the Mets felt comfortable letting an incumbent superstar walk with a solid, young replacement ready to step in.
As offense continues to wane and the precision of defensive metrics continues to improve, the perceived value of players like Andrus, Ruben Tejada, and Didi Gregorius grows. As that fact relates to Wilfredo Tovar, the Mets have already uncovered in Tejada a solid, economical, defense-oriented option to run out at short for the foreseeable future. So what does that mean for Tovar?
At the very least, the club has a very strong internal option to play the role of second-string middle infielder; in 2012 that role was filled capably (for $1.15M) by Ronny Cedeno. However, in light of the above discussion, some might not consider that the most optimal use of assets. There's also the idea of creating a Gold Glove-caliber double play combo by placing Tovar at second base. But as Towers mentions above, a team would have to possess significant offensive firepower to carry that much dead weight in the lineup — and unfortunately the Mets, as they are currently constructed, likely do not.
In any case, the most prudent move for the Mets in 2013 is to let Tovar continue to develop. Again, he has been on a very fast developmental track and after scuffling a bit in his first exposure to Double-A in 2012, it would certainly not hurt to slow him down a jot as he enters the final stages of the minors.
Based on his performance to date it's not unreasonable to imagine that this time next year Tovar might net a significant return in a trade. Trevor Bauer? Probably not. The Gregorius trade was the culmination of propitious circumstances for the Diamondbacks, who capitalized on the middling shortstop market as well as the loudening whispers about Trevor Bauer's personality. Yet it certainly gives Mets fans something to dream on should Tovar continue to progress.