For D-backs’ Gregorius, the future is now

LOS ANGELES  — An elbow injury and a mild concussion conspired to keep Didi Gregorius’ playing time to a minimum early this year, but it appears that is about to change. The Diamondbacks acquired Gregorius to be their shortstop of the future, and the future is closing quickly.

Gregorius extended his season-long hitting streak to nine games in the D-backs’ 9-2 victory over the Dodgers on Monday, singling and scoring twice from the the No. 2 spot in the batting order while making his second career start against a left-hander. Both indicate that the D-backs believe Gregorius is ready for more.

“He’s everything we hoped for and more,” general manager Kevin Towers said before the game. “If he’s healthy and playing well, he is probably going to be out playing quite a bit.”

Gregorius’ start against lefty Chris Capuano may be more telling than the spot in the lineup. A left-handed hitter, Gregorius’ only other previous start against a lefty was against the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner. Regulars play against all kinds.

“We see him as an everyday player, and the more at-bats in a guy’s young career you can get him against lefties …” Towers said.

“I think in baseball, as an industry, at least the last 10 to 15 years, we tend to always protect our lefties. We don’t protect our righties, but we protect our lefties. If you don’t see them a lot, you are not going to be be comfortable up there. There will be a learning curve, I’m sure. They will probably be some struggles, but the more he sees them, the better off he is going to be.”

The D-backs liked the mature hitting approach Gregorius showed Sunday against Padres right-hander Edinson Volquez, when he had two of the team’s four hits. He turned around a 90 mph fastball for his third homer in 30 at-bats in the first inning, and he took an off-speed pitch on the outside part of the plate for a single to left field in the seventh, the D-backs’ only hit in the last six innings. He is hitting .400 in 45 at-bats.

“One of the few guys we had yesterday who made the adjustment and kind of stayed back and finished well and hit it the other way. Good sign,” Towers said.

Teammates also were impressed not only by Gregorius’ two doubles in a 10-inning victory in San Francisco on April 24 but also his last at-bat. Gregorius fell behind Javier Lopez 0-2 before laying off two sliders just outside the strike zone. He eventually struck out, but he made Lopez work.

At the same time, Gregorius is only 23 and has only one month of previous major league time — that coming with the Reds last September — and the D-backs do not plan to throw him into the deep end. He probably will get the day off against Dodgers ace lefty Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday.

The D-backs also are cognizant of the offseason right elbow injury that kept Gregorius from playing the field all the way through spring training. He did not play the field April 15 at Class AAA Reno and joined the D-backs the next day, when Aaron Hill was placed on the disabled list with a fractured left hand. Gregorius homered on the first pitch he saw in his first at-bat of his first game April 18.

Cliff Pennington certainly will remain in the mix at shortstop, with Towers adding that Pennington “plays as good a defense at shortstop as anybody I’ve seen.” He has seen playing time at shortstop and second base. Hill is expected to return at the end of the month.

“We still need to be cautious with (Gregorius) with the arm injury, not to overdo it too much too early. Young players you try to protect a little bit. You don’t want to kill them their first year. Same thing with (center fielder Adam) Eaton. We think he is an everyday player, but he going to have days off,” Towers said.

Some scouting reports questioned the potential in Gregorius’ bat after he hit seven home runs in each of the last two minor league seasons, but Towers and his scouts saw major league bat speed when they watched him in the Arizona Fall League last October.

After hitting his third home run Sunday, Gregorius joked, “No, I don’t feel like I an a home run hitter.”

The D-backs believe he has plenty of sock, certainly enough for a middle infielder with his kind of range and arm, both of which he showed off Sunday on an impressive pickup and throw to first from deep in the hole to retire Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia.

“Defensively, the play he made yesterday was about as tough a hop as you could get, and an off-balance, body-control laser (throw) that just kept carrying,” Towers said.

“He’s a smart kid. He’s become a better base runner. You like having him in the lineup. He’s one of those guys you look forward to when he comes up. He attacks. He’s aggressive.”

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