There is a spotlight glaring on Gleyber Torres now, unfairly or not, and his 2021 season feels more make-or-break than it perhaps should for a 24-year-old who not long ago was blooming into the latest Yankees star.
Torres struggled during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, slowed by both poor conditioning and leg injuries. He did not play well defensively at shortstop and, after opening his MLB career with two superlative offensive seasons, sagged at the plate, too.
Was it just a blip in a bizarre, stop-and-go season full of protocols and uncertainty? Or the start of a trend that will make folks in baseball rethink their career-long expectations for the two-time All-Star? Ultimately, Torres’ performance this year and going forward will tell us.
But in interviews with several evaluators around baseball, none had real long-term concerns about Torres. The Yankees are not the only ones who expect Torres to make enough plays at shortstop that he can hold the position for at least this season while hitting like the old Gleyber, too.
In other words, file 2020 under “blip” and get ready to watch Torres continue his ascent.
“If there was ever a season to look at it like it was a spring training, it was last year,” says an executive from an American League team’s front office, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t buy the notion that anything the players did last year is the same. Be very cautious about that.
“Some of the best role players in the world were really good for 60 games. Gleyber is just too talented, so you write it off. With him, the skill set is the skill set and it’s really good.”
Adds a scout from a National League team who has closely watched Torres’ career: “I have absolutely no questions on Gleyber and they’d have to be out of their minds if there are questions about him.”
Coming off a 38-homer season in 2019, Torres hit just three in 42 games in 2020, while slashing .243/.356/.368. He made nine errors at shortstop, the most on the team.
Torres did perform better as the season went on and also enjoyed a sensational postseason. From Sept. 5-22, he had a 1.025 OPS. Over his final 25 games, he had an .873 OPS. In seven postseason games, Torres batted .435 with a 1.262 OPS, two homers and seven walks.
Over the winter, Yankees GM Brian Cashman criticized Torres’ conditioning between the shutdown of spring training and the start of Summer Camp” But Cashman also noted that the shortstop fared better as he got fitter during the season. That in-season improvement certainly seems like a good sign.
Here’s another: Torres raised his walk percentage and lowered his strikeout percentage. That, perhaps, suggests an improving control of the strike zone.
One observer believes that Torres could benefit from enduring a poor season.
“He’s going to be fine,” says Dan O’Dowd, who was the general manager of the Colorado Rockies from 1999-2014 and is now an analyst for MLB Network. “It was a very humbling year. You don’t know how good you can become as an MLB player until you’re humbled.
“He should never have come into [Summer] Camp the way he did — he’s way too talented a player,” adds O’Dowd, who will be part of the coverage when MLB Network features the Yankees on its 30 Clubs in 30 Days on Sunday at 7 p.m.
O’Dowd acknowledges that Torres’ conditioning failure is a cause for concern, saying “he lost some quickness.” But, O’Dowd adds, “Young kids make mistakes. It was a weird year, the stop and start. I wouldn’t overreact to it. I think people lost perspective last year.
“Player development is not linear. You’d like it to be. There are zigs and zags and there needs to be patience and accountability. He’s a good kid, seems like a good teammate. In my mind, it’s good that players get humbled. Then you really have a chance to see the competitive nature of a player.”
Whatever happens with Torres this season, he can expect a lot of attention, especially when he makes his first error at short. His defensive shortcomings were a big story last year and he’s no darling of defensive metrics at short.
Still, O’Dowd believes the Yankees will be fine with Torres at the position. “Maybe he won’t be a Gold Glove shortstop, but as long as he makes the plays that he can, I don’t think it’s a problem,” O’Dowd says.
There are other, big-picture storylines connected to Torres, too. Should the Yankees sign him to a contract extension now, regardless of what position he holds in the future? Can he jump back into the same echelon as other young mega-stars grabbing headlines across the game, such as Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto?
At some point, maybe not this season, he’ll have to weather the chatter about how involved the Yankees might be in the spectacular shortstop class of free agents — Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Javier Báez, Carlos Correa and Trevor Story — who could all hit the open market after the 2021 season.
Whatever the case, Torres can still be a special player. Even watching him last year, his worst year, there were still moments when he’d turn on an impossible, high-velocity pitch and O’Dowd would marvel.
“And you’d say, ‘How did he do that?’” O’Dowd says.