Gregorius Emerges As Reds' Top AFL Shortstop

Emerging Curacao prospects helps push Hamilton to CF





PHOENIX—One of the Arizona Fall League's biggest stories this year involves the transition of Reds shortstop prospect Billy Hamilton to the outfield. In addition to the doubts as to whether the speedy Hamilton could handle the shortstop position at the big league level, another reason for the switch is the development of Peoria teammate DiDi Gregorius, who is a level ahead of Hamilton in the Reds organization and made his major league debut last month. He got into eight games with the Reds, batting .300 in 20 at-bats.

Most baseball observers believe that Gregorius possesses the defensive chops to play shortstop at the big league level. One look at him on the field convinces even the most casual baseball fan that the Curacao native was born to play shortstop. He just looks the part, and reinforces that view by flashing above-average athleticism along with a strong arm, good range and natural actions at the position.

The bigger questions about Gregorius' future revolve around his potential at the plate, especially concerning the lack of power and plate discipline, but the 22-year-old lefthanded hitter showed two positive signs this year. He walked 41 times compared to only 19 during the 2011 season, albeit in 45 more games in 2012. Even more importantly, Gregorius' power emerged after a July promotion to Triple-A Louisville. After hitting only one home run in 316 at-bats at Double-A Pensacola, Gregorius connected for six homers in 185 at-bats at Louisville. He finished the year with a combined batting line of .265/.324/.393 in 501 at-bats.

Gregorius wasn't surprised by the power boost.

"When I started the season I was trying to get more singles and singles and singles," Gregorius said, "and then in the second half I tried to get a little more power. I went up there in Triple-A, and it made me open my eyes more and see pitches more and recognize pitches more. I was able to put some good swings and ended up getting a couple of homeruns."

Javelinas hitting coach Alex Pelaez, the Reds' coach at low Class A Dayton during the regular season, offered another explanation for Gregorius' sudden increase in long balls.

"He became a better hitter," Pelaez said. "You learn to hit home runs. It's not always about power. You get a shorter swing, more compact . . . The balls start jumping out, the pitchers throw more strikes, and sometimes it's easier to get more comfortable in (the batter's box)."

Gregorius is off to a fast start in the Arizona Fall League as part of a prospect-laden Peoria lineup that also includes Hamilton, Mariners first-round pick Mike Zunino, Padres slugging first baseman Nate Freiman, and Phillies catching prospect Tommy Joseph. He's gone 6 for 14 in his first four games and has yet to strike out.

"Didi is a bit under the radar," said a scout with a National League organization who has seen Gregorius prior to the AFL. "I still like the ceiling and the player, he just hasn't put it all together yet. One of his best qualities is his energy.

"I do think the bat regressed a tick this year but he's still young and hasn't slowed the game down yet. The strength is in there . . . He can turn it up offensively and hit good pitching but will take mental breaks and give away ABs. I saw some maturity there this year for the time once he got to Triple-A."

Challenges such as making his MLB debut at 22 and now playing in baseball's premier development league are nothing new for Gregorius, who was born in the Netherlands and fluently speaks four languages (English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento, the latter being the Creole language of Curacao and surrounding islands). The son of a former pro player in the Netherlands and Curacao, Gregorius was exposed to advanced competition at a young age, often playing against players five years older in leagues in Curacao. He's also been a member of Dutch national teams since 2009 and was one of the stars when the Netherlands won the 2011 World Cup in Panama. He's expected play for the national team when it participates in next year's World Baseball Classic, though the Dutch have an embarrassment of riches at short with Gregorious, the Braves' Andrelton Simmons, Rangers farmhand Jurickson Profar and Red Sox farmhand Xander Bogaerts also potential candidates.

Ask Gregorius about any of the experiences that he's had in baseball, be it the major leagues, international play or now the Arizona Fall League, and he consistently talks about how they strengthen his work ethic.

"I'm here to work," Gregorius said. "I'm working on everything to get better and better every day . . . You're not on vacation, you're here to work. You work hard every day and get defensively better, offensively better, know the situation and run the bases better . . . that's the main thing."

As a member of the Reds organization, Pelaez has watched Gregorius grow as a player, from rookie ball in 2008 to the big leagues in 2012.

"He does everything well," Pelaez said. "He's a great defender. He has good range and a good arm. He runs well. He's developing his power; he just has a good all-around game right now."

If Gregorius plays shortstop with the flair of an artist, it may be that he comes by that right-brain talent naturally. His favorite off-field hobby is drawing, and he currently spends many hours sketching pictures using the Sketchbook app on his iPad. But he's not ready to give up his day job for that of a starving artist.

"I won't say I'm an artist," Gregorius said, "but I can draw. I try to draw everything I can. I just do it for myself."

FALL GUYS

• Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick this spring after being named College Player of the Year, tied the knot just before the start of the AFL season but opted to postpone the post-wedding vacation until after the fall season. His arrival in the Javelinas lineup hasn't exactly been a honeymoon for opposing pitchers, especially in last Saturday's night game at Scottsdale Stadium. The righthanded-hitting catcher tripled in back to back at-bats, both times hitting the ball off the center field wall that measures 430 feet from home plate. Zunino went 4 for 13 for the week, following on his first pro season in which he batted .373/.474/.736 with short-season Everett and .333/.386/.588 at Double-A Jackson.

• At 19, Cubs shortstop Javier Baez is one of the youngest AFL players. But the 2011 first-round draft choice didn't waste any time showing off his tremendous power and bat speed, hitting a long homer estimated at 440 feet in his first at-bat on Opening Day. Baez followed that with a shot on Saturday that traveled nearly as far, but he also fanned six times in his first 17 at-bats and made two errors in his first try at the third base position.