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Two Young Yankee Imports Blossoming in the Bronx

Eovaldi and Gregorius Contributing to Yankees

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During the winter, the Yankees set their sights on a youth movement in a pair of two unfinished youngsters born five days apart in February of 1990, who would both be joining their third team respectively in the big leagues despite turning 25-years old just as the Yankees reported to spring training. For an organization that has fielded one of the five oldest teams in Major League Baseball every year since 2004, the experiment was refreshing.

In early December, general manager Brian Cashman traded Shane Greene to the Detroit Tigers as part of a three-team trade that allowed the Yankees to acquire shortstop Didi Gregorius from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Two weeks later, Cashman sent well liked veteran Martin Prado and swingman David Phelps to the Miami Marlins for hard-throwing righty Nathan Eovaldi. The Yankees also acquired backup first baseman Garrett Jones and young pitcher Domingo German in the trade.

Cashman saw promise in both of these players not fully realized in the majors. He essentially purchased stocks that he believed would rise and help the team in 2015 and beyond. If Cashman was right, the Yankees could have a high-end shortstop and a mid-rotation power arm at affordable rates for quite a while.

“Is there risk involved?” Cashman asked rhetorically at the time. “Of course. There is risk involved with every transaction we’re making. But we’re getting younger, we’re getting more diversified, and hopefully when the dust settles, it’ll prove out that we’ve also gotten better. Time will tell.”

Out of the gate, Gregorius and Eovaldi both scuffled. Gregorius posted a horrific .206/.261/.238 slash line in April. His swing was long and he even looked lost at times in the field. Eovaldi was largely inconsistent and struggled going deep in games, culminating in a blow-up against his old Miami team in mid-June when he couldn’t get out of the first inning. But the Yankees stuck with both youngsters, perhaps due to a lack of other options to some extent, and the team is now reaping the benefits of letting the two young players work through their struggles.

Gregorius has gone back to being the type of defensive asset he was expected to be, but the bat has come around as well. He has improved his batting average and OPS every month this season. Since May 28, Gregorius has raised his average from .206 to .257, and he has committed just three errors since June 6. Additionally, the Netherlands native is hitting .307/.333/.376 since the All-Star break (after hitting just .238/.293/.326 before it). It’s possible Gregorius’ slow start resulted from the pressure of replacing Derek Jeter, but he has heard less and less chants for the captain to return.

“You still hear it but for me I don’t really worry about all that stuff,” Gregorius told me in the Yankees locker room. “I’m just here to play the game so it’s just focusing on that and trying to get better. That’s the only thing I can worry about right now.”

Meanwhile, Eovaldi’s numbers have been basically identical the last two years (4.37/4.26 ERA, 3.37/3.62 FIP), but he has gone from 6-14 to 12-2. His .857 winning percentage is tied for second in the Majors among pitchers with at least 10 decisions, and he became the first Yankee with 10+ wins & 2 or fewer losses in his first 20 starts since Jimmy Key. But since June 20, Eovaldi has gone 7-0, posted a 3.22 ERA and struck out 42 batters. He is demonstrating the effect a change in pitch arsenal can have, as the split-finger fastball he has added this season is now the reliable third weapon, which has aided his turnaround.

“I just feel like it’s been my split,” Eovaldi told me about what has changed for him “I’ve been able to use that and control it better. I haven’t been out there trying to do too much on the mound and I’ve been just going out there trying to pitch smarter. Our defense has been great and we’ve been scoring a lot of runs, so that helps to.”

The Houston, Texas, native has been propped up to a 12-2 record thanks to the second-highest run support in the majors, 7.6 runs per game. But he has also had the guidance and helping hand of pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who has helped him add the splitter and continued to work with him in tweaking his delivery.

“He’s been one of my favorites pitching coaches to work with in general,” Eovaldi said. “He stays on me all the time and pushes me to get better. The split has helped me out a lot and we’ve been working with that.”

Gregorius has apparently benefited from major league coaching as well, as assistant hitting coach Alan Cockrell talked about helping Didi shorten his swing back in June. It’s likely no coincidence that Gregorius has since been having a lot more success spreading the ball to all fields, rather than the more pull-heavy approach earlier in the season. He has also benefited by not only listening to his coaches, but also to his teammates on a club laden with veterans – be it his fellow middle infielders Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan, or Alex Rodriguez.

“They’ve been here for a while so you always pick their brains and stuff you got to work on,” said Gregorius, who is is the only Yankee among their top 11 in plate appearances who is under the age of 31. “If they see stuff they tell you and so everyone here is trying to help each other.”

Gregorius and Eovaldi aren’t without their flaws. Despite coming up with a sparkling defensive play seemingly every night, Gregorius is still learning the shortstop position. He played second base until the age of 17 because Braves’ Andrelton Simmons was the shortstop, and the two were always on the same team growing up in Curacao. He also still can’t hit left-handed pitching. Gregorius has recorded 260 at-bats against southpaws (from ages 22 to 25), and he has hit .188/.259/.250 with 1 homer.

“It’s something you can always improve on, so that’s why I’ve been here working in the cage and all that stuff,” said Gregorius, whose arm and range have always been at the top of scouts’ scales. “I’m trying to put all the pieces together and trying to stay in there more against them, which has helped me a lot against lefties.”

Gregorius, who was signed by the Cinncanti Reds back in 2007, is regularly at the ballpark early to work on his fielding or hitting and he has recently improved at “going day-by-day,” which is a timeless cliché but the right way to look at things for a young player.

“For me it’s just going day by day, and I get here early, work on some stuff I got to work on and am just trying to get better,” Gregorius said.

Eovaldi’s 95.7 mph fastball average was the fourth-best velocity among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title last season, yet he struck out just 6.4 batters per nine innings, which ranked 68th among pitchers. He also gave up a National League-high 223 hits in 199 2/3 innings. Despite the 12-2 record this season, Eovaldi has still allowed a whopping 154 hits in 128 innings and it still seems to be a problem plaguing him.

“I don’t know,” Eovaldi admitted. “I feel like, I’ve been giving up a lot of singles this year. But I try not to look too big into stuff. For me the result comes down to you winning the game and giving the team the best chance to win when you come out. So I feel like I’ve been doing well in that this year. The hits are going to happen, I just got to do a better job of executing when I’m ahead in the count.”

The biggest question mark over the Yankees heading into the past offseason was the lack of a starting shortstop and starting pitching. However, Gregorius’ improvement on both sides of the ball, and Eovaldi’s evolution on the mound has quelled those concerns for now and the future.

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