Closing Time: Mr. Underrated, Didi Gregorius

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9282/" data-ylk="slk:Didi Gregorius">Didi Gregorius</a> is taking off in New York (AP)
Didi Gregorius is taking off in New York (AP)

The Yankees offense can be a difficult one to take at face value. Although New York is fourth in runs, second in average, third in OBP, and fourth in slugging, it’s also filled with batters performing at the high end of their ranges. No one expected Brett Gardner to rake like this, or Aaron Judge. The Aaron Hicks breakout came largely out of nowhere.

A little deeper in the lineup, we have the unheralded story of Didi Gregorius. It’s a good lesson in how labels sometimes stick early in a career, then won’t come off despite notable, and contrary, results.

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Gregorius showed up as a rated prospect back in 2013, during his NL days. His stature was mostly tied to his defense. Gregorius slashed .265/.314/.400 during six seasons in the minors; that won’t get you laughed out of the room, but this was a good-glove, ordinary-hit prospect. He posted a mediocre .682 OPS during his 183-game trial in Arizona, and was around that number during his first Yankees season.

Then a funny thing happened to Gregorius last year, during his age-26 season. He got better. He took a needed step forward against left-handed pitching, and he started clocking mistakes out of the ballpark. A .276 average is a plus number in today’s game, and he took his slugging percentage up to .447, sparked by 20 homers. He still doesn’t walk much, but his contact rate remained elite.

And yet, it was easy for some to brush off Gregorius’s power spike. He doesn’t look like a home-run hitter. He doesn’t draw those walks. He doesn’t fit the suit.

A shoulder injury cost Gregorius most of April, but he’s been money since returning. A .324/.347/.479 slash gets your attention, and he’s also homered five times. If you grade all fantasy shortstops over the last six weeks, Gregorius checks out as the No. 6 producer. And yet somehow, he’s still owned in just 39 percent of Yahoo leagues.

To get a wider appreciation of Gregorius, consider his last calendar year versus some other big-name shortstops:

— Gregorius: .293/.321/.485, 21 homers, 6 steals

— Bogaerts: .284/.348/427, 17 homers, 13 steals

— Lindor: .286/.347/.459, 21 homers, 12 steals

Obviously I’m not advocating anyone trade Bogaerts or Lindor for Gregorius (though you might want to consider a 2-for-1, if it fits your roster shape). No one expects Gregorius to bat .324, either. I just want you to appreciate that Gregorius is in the neighborhood of some elite names over the last year (and for that matter, so is the underrated Elvis Andrus). Gregorius’s ownership tag doesn’t make much sense.

You know your team, your needs, and your situation better than I do. But here are some widely-owned infielders who could be worse fantasy bets than Gregorius for the balance of this year: Addison Russell (66 percent; obviously some bigger problems here); Devon Travis (43 percent, hurt again); Neil Walker (43 percent); Aledmys Diaz (63 percent). I can’t make the point and click for you. Do what you think is needed. Dance with Mr. D.

• In case you missed it Thursday, we should offer up a note about Juan Nicasio, who looks like the possible closer-in-waiting if the Pirates move off slumping Tony Watson.

Nicasio’s stats are excellent (1.35 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, a strikeout per inning), though no better than Felipe Rivero’s. But Nicasio has two possible edges over Rivero — he’s right-handed, and he’s not headed for an arbitration windfall. With the Pirates outside serious contention, it might make sense to keep Rivero away from the ninth inning. For better or for worse, those handshakes get paid at the bargaining table.

Nicasio is unclaimed in 86 percent of Yahoo leagues.

• Remember the good old days of Carlos Gomez, a free swinger who nonetheless had some years as a four or five-category player? Domingo Santana is starting to take on that look. Santana pushed off to a terrible start this year, but he’s been a fantasy monster over the last month (.337-21-6-22-3), the No. 11 hitter in 5×5. That’s also tied to a .405 OBP and .538 slugging percentage.

Santana’s defense won’t remind anyone of Gomez; hey, can’t have everything. But Santana is somehow still kicking around in 42 percent of Yahoo leagues. The Milwaukee offense is better than you might think (seventh in runs), and Santana has carved out a key role in the No. 5 slot.

• If you want to root for a Milwaukee story that makes almost zero sense, we present you Eric Sogard. He’s gone nuclear in 58 at-bats, slashing .414/.541/.672 with three homers and two bags. What happened to the .247/.308/.330 guy we knew in Oakland?

The Brewers figure to keep Sogard in the leadoff spot until he cools off. It’s taking some at-bats away from Jonathan Villar and Orlando Arcia.

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