A report by Tyler Kepner for the New York Times.
When Didi Gregorius joined the Yankees, everyone else in the regular lineup was at least 30 years old. Players can excel in their 30s, of course, but they rarely get much better, and they tend to cost a lot.
“Everything we’ve been trying to do, for quite some time, has been about getting younger,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said on Monday. Acquiring Gregorius, who was 24 in December 2014, was a start.
Gregorius has 24 home runs and batted cleanup in the Yankees’ 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Monday. It was Gregorius’s fourth day in a row in the No. 4 spot, and his 32nd time there this season. This hardly makes him the Yankees’ best power hitter — Aaron Judge batted second on Monday and ripped his American League-leading 44th homer — but it is not where the Yankees expected Gregorius to hit.
Cashman needed a shortstop to replace the retired Derek Jeter, and Gregorius was one of several middle infielders with the Arizona Diamondbacks. At least six Yankees scouts had seen Gregorius, who had hit .243 with 13 homers in 191 games across three seasons in the National League. Tim Naehring, now the Yankees’ vice president for baseball operations, made the strongest pitch.
“Didi was a very good defender, but he had not been able to establish himself as a hitter against left-handed pitching,” Cashman said. “He was still developing with the bat, and he wasn’t a finished product. It was matter of a lot of pro scouts applying his ceiling.”
Cashman could not find a match with the Diamondbacks to work out a trade but wondered if another team could. That August, Shane Greene, then a rookie right-hander with the Yankees, had thrown two gems against the powerful Detroit Tigers, allowing two runs in 15 innings. Cashman told Dave Dombrowski, then the Tigers’ general manager, that he would give him Greene if Dombrowski could get Gregorius.
Dombrowski has a reputation for quick, decisive action, and he came through within two days, trading pitcher Robbie Ray and an infield prospect to Arizona for Gregorius, and flipping Gregorius to the Yankees for Greene. Ray is now an All-Star for the Diamondbacks, and Greene is closing for the rebuilding Tigers after fizzling as a starter.
“At the time, I felt like we were pitching-deficient, and we were depleting one area of need to shore up another area of need,” Cashman said. “It was a difficult decision. I was so desperate for a shortstop, I had to step up and put an important piece on the table to get it done.”
Cashman said he remembered the wisdom of front-office mentors like Gene Michael, Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean, who had always emphasized the importance of strength up the middle — catcher, shortstop, second base and center field. He insisted he liked Greene despite his ordinary minor league track record, but he prioritized the everyday player.
The deal looks like a heist, because Gregorius, now 27, has developed into a worthy heir to Jeter. On Sunday he matched Jeter’s club record for homers by a shortstop (Jeter hit his 24 in 1999) and only one major league shortstop, Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor, has hit more homers this season. Gregorius is also hitting .292 with 81 R.B.I. after going 0 for 4 on Monday.
“Just hitting line drives, that’s all I’m trying to do,” said Gregorius, who hit 20 homers last season. “I’m not trying to do anything different, just trying to be the same player. I’m just working on my swing, trying to make it shorter and quicker and stronger.”
Gregorius’s minor league high in homers was seven, which he did twice in the Cincinnati Reds’ system. He signed with the Reds out of Curaçao for $50,000 in 2007, the same year they drafted Todd Frazier in the first round.
“When I first saw him, he was skin and bones, man,” said Frazier, now the Yankees’ third baseman. “It was crazy. He was only 17 — I started growing at 18, so he probably started sprouting around that time — and next thing you know he started lifting a little more. And now look at him: He’s one of the best shortstops in the league. He’s underrated, and that’s the best part about him. He doesn’t look for accolades, he doesn’t look for praise. All he wants to do is win.”
Frazier said he had been impressed by Gregorius’s adjustments within at-bats, as well as by his willingness to choke up at times and trust his hands.
“People don’t understand how hard it is to trust that, and to commit to it,” Frazier said. “It took me six years and I’m finally doing it now with two strikes.”
Gregorius’s power is not a product of the cozy dimensions in right field at Yankee Stadium. Through Sunday, he had 11 homers and a .435 slugging percentage at home, with 13 homers and a .548 slugging percentage on the road.
“We envisioned that he was going to impact the baseball; we envisioned that he would hit some home runs,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “I don’t know if any of us put a number on it, but what I’ve seen is what you see from a lot of players — they just continue to mature and get better and better and understand who they are.”
The Yankees have continued to supplement their lineup with other players still in that process of discovery. Second baseman Starlin Castro — acquired from the Chicago Cubs in a December 2015 trade — is also 27. He made the All-Star team this season and is hitting around .300.
Catcher Gary Sanchez and Judge are pillars of the future. First baseman Greg Bird and outfielder Clint Frazier might be, too. All are 25 or younger. Barring a total collapse, they will soon reach the playoffs together.
“Everybody sees what we can do,” Gregorius said. “We were doubted in spring training, that we’re going to be in last, and now we’re here. It’s a surprise for everybody, but I knew we had a good team since the second half of ’16, when they traded away all their best guys and then called the young guys up. It’s basically the same young guys from ’16 that’s playing right now and having a really great year.”
Gregorius was the first of the young guys to arrive in the lineup, and his impact keeps growing more powerful.