The last time the Yankees needed a shortstop I was in fourth grade. Now for the first time since I was nine years old, the Yankees’ shortstop is someone with a number other than 2, someone not named Derek Jeter.
Part of me is still holding out hope that everything that has happened since February when Jeter announced his retirement has been one big, well-planned and sick joke. I sometimes wish I have been living in my own version of The Truman Show and that everyone in the world has been in on it by trying to make me think Derek Jeter will never play baseball again. It’s the reason why I still haven’t written my “Goodbye” column for him and have put it off for as long as possible and will likely put it off until at least spring training and maybe even Opening Day.
But if everything about Jeter over the last 10 months has been a worldwide plan to trick me into thinking the last link to my childhood baseball fandom is gone then I guess Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office is heavily invested in the joke since they traded a 26-year-old promising starting pitcher in Shane Greene for a 24-year-old shortstop in Didi Gregorius. I’m beginning to think Derek Jeter really isn’t coming back.
In this city, there a few people and a few jobs that are impossible to replace and Derek Jeter is No. 1 (and in the sports world is No. 1 across the board in the country). Anyone who was going to replace Chris “Mad Dog” Russo alongside Mike Francesa was never going to be “Mad Dog” and that show and time slot was never going to be the same and fortunately there hasn’t been anyone to try to fill those shoes. The person who is going to one day replace Mike Francesa every weekday from 1-6:30 on WFAN shouldn’t expect rave reviews since that transition will likely have Bob Raissman and Phil Mushnick longing for the days of the Pope. Joe Girardi had to replace Joe Torre, who spent all 12 of his seasons with the Yankees in the playoffs and six of those 12 in the World Series, and unless Girardi topped four World Series in his first five years, he was never going to be Torre. David Robertson had to replace not only the Yankees’ 17-year closer, but the greatest closer in the history of baseball. Despite a revolving door of sandwich makers, the cafeteria in the Time Life Building in Rockefeller Center is probably still looking for a sandwich-making replacement for Norma. And now Didi Gregorius is taking over (not replacing) for Derek Jeter.
Aside from actually becoming the First Shortstop Since Fourth Grade, former Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers didn’t exactly do Gregorius any favors when he traded for him and gave his evaluation of the shortstop.
“When I saw him he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter. I was fortunate enough to see Jeter when he was in high school in Michigan and he’s got that type of range. He’s got speed. He’s more of a line drive-type hitter, but I think he’s got the type of approach at the plate where I think there’s going to be power there as well.”
So for any irrational Yankees fan out there, that December 2012 quote couldn’t have been more perfect for setting Gregorius’ expectations as high as possible by implanting the idea that Gregorius looks and plays and could be Derek Jeter. Sure, Towers didn’t know at the time that his newly acquired young player would be the Yankees’ shortstop of the future in two years, but in retrospect he couldn’t have given a worse possible quote to stifle expectations for a kid being asked to do an impossible job unless he said, “Didi Gregorius is related to Derek Jeter.”
The person who took over for Derek Jeter was never going to have a fairytale transition into their new job unless their April 2015 replicated Shane Spencer’s September 1998. But when it comes to Didi, he might be best set up to be the new Yankees’ shortstop because he isn’t a big name free agent or a proven star, who the Yankees had to either back up the money truck for or trade the farm to acquire. If the Yankees had signed Hanley Ramirez or traded for Troy Tulowitzki, the First Shortstop Since First Grade would have A-Rod-like pressure from their first at-bat with the Yankees. Ramirez would have cost the Yankees another multiyear deal for eight figures for a player in his 30s with past injury and personality problems. Troy Tulowitzki would have cost the Yankees an even longer contract for an even more injury-prone player and some of the organization’s best prospects on top of that. If Didi doesn’t live up to Kevin Towers’ initial comparison and isn’t the long-term answer for the Yankees then all it cost was a 26-year-old right-handed starter, who is anything but proven. And if it does work out, the Yankees just got the foundation up the middle for the future for an unproven 26-year-old right-hander.
I have seen Gregorius play minimally during his 191 career games in the majors, but if his glove is as good as touted and his offense can mirror his 2013 season (.252/.332/.373) or if his offense starts to show signs of what he did in 260 Triple-A plate appearances last season (.310/.389/.447) then I have no problem with Didi being the future. Even without knowing what he is yet or what he will become, he’s a better option than watching Stephen Drew or Brendan Ryan become the First Shortstop Since Fourth Grade since we already know what they are.
As recent as Friday morning I was scared about where this Yankees offseason was headed and what my 2015 summer was going to look like with holes still up the middle and question marks in the rotation and in the bullpen. But I feel a little more comfortable in knowing that there is a real, true, viable player who could be the Yankees’ answer at shortstop.
Didi Gregorius doesn’t have to be Derek Jeter and if he wanted to, he can’t be. No one can. For now, he’s just the First Shortstop Since Fourth Grade and with four months until Opening Day, he can’t be anything more.