It can be pretty difficult to be the person that immediately takes the spot of a legend.
When legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden retired, Gene Bartow was tasked to replace him. He lasted just two seasons, leaving voluntarily to take another job, in large part because the task of having to replace a man who won 10 championships was too much. It should be noted that his winning percentage was actually greater than what Wooden did, but even still, two years with no titles and it just became too much.
In English soccer, it took Manchester United 15 years to find a suitably replacement for their legendary manager Matt Busby. Eventually they found one in Alex Ferguson, who led them from 1986 to 2013, winning all sorts of major honors along the way. They are now similarly having a hard time replacing him, and are on their fourth manager in seven years, and likely to make another change sooner than later.
Sure there have been easy transitions from a legend to someone at least pretty good, but those are the exception, and not the rule. The Yankees faced one of those replacements fairly recently, and managed to find one of those exceptions.
The Yankees traded for Didi Gregorius on December 5, 2014, a few months after the final games of Derek Jeter. As if replacing the Hall of Famer wasn’t enough, the price for acquiring the shortstop was Shane Greene, who has been a bright spot in an otherwise drab 2014 season. There were no shortage of people not happy that a young, homegrown, seemingly full of potential pitcher was swapped for a guy who had put up a 81 OPS+ the season before.
Those worries became full blown at the start of the 2015 season. Greene started off the season by allowing one earned run across 23 innings in his first three starts with the Tigers. Meanwhile, Gregorius had an OPS of just .580 through May. He also made six errors in that time, despite his fielding being his calling card at that point of his career.
Gregorius rebounded the season to finish with an 89 OPS+. That’s nothing to write home about, but it was enough to ease the worry about the trade. It also didn’t hurt that Greene fell off a cliff after those aforementioned first three starts.
Over the next couple seasons, Gregorius steadily improved pretty much every year. That 89 OPS+ improved to 97 in 2016, to 106 in 2017, to 124 in 2018. He had gone from a light hitting, good fielding shortstop into a legitimate All-Star candidate. He came up with some big hits that will be remembered in years to come.
Off the field, his emoji-filled victory tweets became one of the most fun things about following the team. In spite of everything that could’ve gone wrong in following Derek Jeter, Didi Gregorius became one of the most beloved members of the Yankees.
Gregorius is now a member of the Phillies, having signed there in the offseason. Tasked with replacing him will be Gleyber Torres. He has a massive step up on what Gregorius did considering that he was a top-rated prospect, has proven how good he could be, and is familiar to Yankees fans.
Didi Gregorius was a massive “underdog” in his task of trying to live up to Jeter’s legacy. He may not have matched what the Hall of Famer did in pinstripes, but he gave it a hell of an effort.