When Derek Jeter retired, he left a hole in the Yankees. It wasn’t as simple as the bizarre optics of an unfamiliar infield where your childhood hero used to stand. It wasn’t just a hole in the lineup where a prolific bat used to sit. It was an identity crisis. It was a blank stare in response to what used to be the easiest question to answer: “Who’s your favorite player?”
A lot has changed since 2014, and some top notch candidates have made their case to fill that power vacuum. The new-look Yankees are flush with star ballplayers and likable personalities. They have the league-sensation in Aaron Judge, the reliable veteran in CC Sabathia, and the guy you can’t help but pull for in Greg Bird. There’s even a folk hero underdog, Ronald Torreyes, and a mega-star, Giancarlo Stanton. The true team anchor, however, would be a shock to fans in early 2015.
Didi Gregorius has become the man. It’s almost poetic that Jeter’s replacement would rise up to become the new fan favorite. There’s a nice sense of balance it in all. It’s a spot that he’s earned, though. Relatively unknown when Brian Cashman picked him up for
a bag of packing peanuts and a newspaper left on the subway Shane Greene, Didi has improved year after year and stepped into the limelight as a top shortstop and a better clubhouse leader.
This new role of Didi’s is going to be an important one for the Yankees in 2018. No longer are they a group of untested rookies. Coming within one game of the World Series makes you a contender. Doing so while barely tapping into your highly touted pool of prospects makes you a fearsome contender. Following that up by nabbing the National League MVP in the offseason puts a target on your back.
The expectations for the Yankees this season will be high. The team is still very young and will have to adapt to those expectations. At the same time, they will be fostering a new team dynamic with the addition of a major star and the likely introduction of young prospects. It will be a challenge to maintain the vibrant culture of the 2017 Yankees that led to such success. While multiple guys could be considered key contributors to that atmosphere, Gregorius sits at the heart of it.
A strong clubhouse culture starts with winning and winning starts with performance. Gregorius had a career year in 2017, where he batted .287/.318/.478 with 25 home runs. His defense also remained strong, boasting a 5.3 UZR, placing him sixth among all active shortstops. When he was brought to the Yankees, the forecast was that he would be a strong defender with average offensive output. He has far surpassed those expectations, but there is always room to improve.
The Yankees will enter the season with the second coming of Murderers’ Row. That means the name of the game will be getting on base and creating as many at-bats as possible. With the addition of Stanton, Gregorius will be moving further back in the lineup, meaning the team could benefit from him increasing his .318 OBP. The good news is that he rarely strikes out, but his 4.4% walk rate is one of the worst on the team. Generating some more walks will make him a much more valuable spot in the lineup.
Another weakness is base running. In 2017, Gregorius stole all of three bases. Now, he’s not on this team to swipe bags, but using his relatively good speed to increase scoring opportunities and decrease double play chances would be a welcomed improvement. It of course seems silly to nitpick an over-performing player, but these tweaks will only strengthen his clout on the team.
Gregorius already possesses the intangibles of a team captain. He has the ability to level egos and keep the mood light, he is relentlessly team-first, and he’s shown he’s capable of playoff heroics.
Moving into 2018, his clubhouse goals will be no easy task. He’ll need to help Stanton smoothly transition to the club, embolden young prospects like Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar, and have the team rally around struggling players. If he can accomplish all these things with the ease and grace that he has for the last few seasons, he will cement himself as the team’s backbone.