By now, baseball fans know not to read too much, if anything at all, into the first game of spring training. But if we’re lucky, when the Yankees and Blue Jays stride onto George M. Steinbrenner Field this afternoon, we’ll be witnessing the first baby steps of a blossoming divisional rivalry between young-gun shortstops Gleyber Torres and Bo Bichette, one that could hearken back to the heyday of Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra.
The parallels between Torres and Bichette play naturally into the notion of a rivalry. Torres is 23 this season, Bichette will be 22. Both hail from teams in the AL East, and both are stepping into the role of shortstop for a full Major League season for the first time. Torres has never been known as a superior second baseman in the field, and the metrics match the eye test: a -14.5 UZR/150 in 1,463 career innings as the Yankees pivot man. He performed better in his time at short last season, with a more respectable mark of -4.7 UZR/150 in 659.2 innings. Bichette entered the big leagues with questions about his ability to handle the defensive responsibilities at shortstop, but he acquitted himself well enough — posting a -5.2 UZR/150 in 2019 — to make a career at the position seem plausible.
More importantly, both Torres and Bichette have shown big talent at the plate. Torres posted a .278/.337/.535 slash line and a 125 wRC+ in 2019, just his second year in the league. Bichette produced a scorching .311/.358/.571 and a 142 wRC+ in 46 games, debuting in July after recovering from a hit-by-pitch in April that fractured his left hand. Their games appear tailor-made for the spotlight. Bichette brings long-maned charisma and a distinctive swing, and has already smashed a walk-off home run against the Yankees. Torres is a two-time All Star in the world’s biggest media market who already has big postseason performances to his name.
The abilities of the young duo conjure up memories of Jeter’s duels with the Red Sox’ Garciaparra. While the styles of Torres and Bichette might not perfectly align with their turn-of-the-century counterparts, their potential talent levels and star power do. Jeter nabbed the Rookie of the year award in ‘96 at 23 years old. Garciaparra won it in ‘97 at the same age. From 1997 to 2003, Garciaparra’s last full season in Boston, they combined for 10 All-Star appearances. Garciaparra put up .325/.372/.557 in that stretch with a blend of average and power, while Jeter slashed .319/.393/.467, staying healthier and getting on base more often. Debate between their respective fan bases was loud and unrelenting, as their competition became emblematic of the battle between their clubs for divisional and American League supremacy.
Sure, the Yankees and the Blue Jays don’t have the spicy history of the New York-Boston rivalry, and the current Red Sox have their own elite shortstop. But with all due respect to Xander Bogaerts, who has been terrific these last two years, he’s not quite the right sparring partner to tango with Torres over the next decade. At 27 years old, he’s already reached his prime; part of the tantalizing nature of Torres versus Bichette is the chance to watch both players grow into titans at the shortstop position over the next decade.
Plus, Boston’s competitive path appears to be diverging from the course charted in the Bronx. The Yankees have firmly propped opened their championship window, while the Red Sox’ seems to have clattered shut for the moment. The Jays aren’t a contender yet, but they’re improving, and with their young core it’s possible they’ll grow to be the greatest divisional threat to the Yankees during Torres’s prime. It would all make for some heated —albeit polite — debate with Torontonians in the future.
And for both Torres and Bichette, it’s the future that really excites. As well as they’ve performed thus far, they could be even better as they approach their peaks. If their ZiPs projections are any indication of where they’re headed in three years’ time, the Yankees and Blue Jays had better buckle up. In 2022, ZiPS projects Torres to post 5.4 fWAR in his age 25 season, creeping toward MVP level, and projects a 24-year-old Bichette to be nipping at his heels with an All-Star-caliber 4.7 fWAR. If both players can live up to or even exceed this potential, fans are in for a treat over the coming decade.
All that is well in the future, however. It’s only February 22nd, 2020, and we are a long way away from realizing this potential, especially since Bichette is yet to have a full season under his belt. Still, it’s exciting in itself that he and Torres are promising enough to even tempt fans with this speculation, premature as it is. After all, what is spring for if not dreaming up great achievements — and rivalries — to come?