The Yankees headed into the 2014-15 offseason without a shortstop for the first time in two decades, and for a team known for its ability to reload on the fly, they seemed shockingly ill-prepared.
Throughout the offseason, most of the word coming out of the Bronx was that the club was not interested in spending the big money or trading the major assets it would cost to acquire a top-notch shortstop. Furthermore, there was no internal solution to be had, and the way Yankees fans felt toward 2014 rental utility infielder Stephen Drew, a decision by General Manager Brian Cashman to give Drew the position might have resulted in a full-on riot.
Derek Jeter needed replacing, and there was no one around to do the job. Perhaps that was only fitting given the enormous void, both tangible and intangible, Jeter was always destined to leave.
As it turned out, the New York Yankees made a pretty low-key move, trading up-and-coming pitcher Shane Greene (who had a phenomenal 2014) to Detroit in a three-way deal that landed Arizona shortstop Didi Gregorius in pinstripes. Fast-forward eight months, and the move looks like a rock solid decision. Greene got off to a fast start in Detroit, but has since cooled off and basically become irrelevant. Gregorius, meanwhile, had a slow start but has gradually begun to develop into the player the Yankees front office doubtless hoped he would be.
Known as an elite defensive shortstop, Gregorius has already improved the Yankees infield on that side of the ball. Jeter was a terrific defender in his prime, but had become sub-par as a shortstop, and Gregorius brought an immediate upgrade. Meanwhile, his hitting has steadily improved throughout the season, to the point that he’s flirting with a .270 average in mid-August. That’s not a Jeter-esque number, but it certainly fulfills the average team’s expectations out of the shortstop position. Furthermore, he’s hitting well over .330 in the second half of the season thus far, and is beginning to show improvement against left-handed pitchers (by far his biggest challenge at the plate).
Gregorius is only 25-years-old, and has the Yankees’ shortstop position locked down. There will be no plugging Stephen Drew into the role, and utility backup Brendan Ryan is strictly a substitute at this point. The way Gregorius has improved, he could well become a consistent .270-ish hitter with elite defensive prowess and youth on his side. Because it matters greatly to the Yankees organization and fans, it’s also worth noting that he conducts himself with class and professionalism – an attitude worthy of making him Jeter’s heir.
But is that really what he is? Is Didi Gregorius really the Yankees’ shortstop of the future?
Frankly, that’s a different question now than it was even a few months ago. Through the midpoint of the season, Gregorius looked like a fine young player without the kind of ability to be a Yankees starter for the long-term. But now that he’s showing the improvement he’s displayed at the plate, many are beginning to open up to the idea that the Shane Greene trade netted New York a career shortstop.
Also working in favor of Didi Gregorius is the fact that no immediate replacement is ready within the organization. The closest thing to an MLB-ready shortstop is Jose Pirela, and the Yankees have already tried him out and sent him back down many times. Cito Culver and Tyler Wade are both names that will be familiar to Yankees fans, and both have been highly touted at times – but at this point, either of them developing into a player of Gregorius’ caliber appears unlikely, and nearly impossible in the near future.
Ultimately if there’s a player worthy of succeeding Derek Jeter aside from Gregorius, it seems that player is Jorge Mateo. Just 20-years-old and still playing A-ball, Mateo is viewed by some scouts as possibly the Yankees’ best prospect now that Luis Severino is in pinstripes. He was deemed untouchable by Cashman at the recent trade deadline, and as of now, he plays shortstop.
Mateo is incredibly fast and shows the ability to develop as an above-average and potentially great defensive shortstop. He’s not a great hitter yet, but those who scout him expect him to come along to the point that he can be a productive everyday player in the major leagues. With all of this considered, it’s conceivable that Mateo could excel quickly and steal the position from Didi Gregorius in the coming years.
Should that happen, Mateo will likely be viewed as the long-term solution, and will ultimately stick in the history books as the guy after Jeter. But the way 2015 is shaping up, Gregorius is going to make him earn it.