On April 6, 2015, young shortstop Didi Gregorius made his debut for the New York Yankees in a 6-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. Gregorius hit ninth and saw three plate appearances — he did not record a hit, flied out twice, got nailed with a pitch, and was caught stealing third in his only time on base.
It was an awful time for the lefty hitter — so much so that fans at Yankee Stadium were chanting for Derek Jeter, the future Hall of Famer who had retired the season prior. Playing shortstop in pinstripes after the 20-year Jeter Era was as advertised for Gregorius after just two hours and 59 minutes of time: a hard, thankless, brutal job.
Just 122 days before his Yankees debut, New York general manager Brian Cashman acquired Gregorius in a three-team trade involving the Arizona Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers. All that the struggling Dutch infielder cost Cashman was pitcher Shane Greene, sent to the Tigers, while the D-Backs got pitcher Robbie Ray and infielder Domingo Leyba.
What Gregorius has given the Yankees far exceeds what Greene contributed to the American League Central team. Greene is used as a middle reliever by Detroit and their management, whereas Didi … well, Didi has blossomed into one of the premier shortstops in Major League Baseball.
If you needed any more proof, Tuesday’s home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays was that. Gregorius saved the day after Giancarlo Stanton, behind whom his lofty left-handed bat hits, struck out five times, and a normally stout bullpen faltered. The former Cincinnati Reds infielder knocked two home runs, eight RBIs, scored three runs, and walked once while going 4-for-4 right behind the reigning National League Most Valuable Player.
Hitting fourth on Tuesday afternoon, Didi became just the third shortstop in MLB history to record four hits and eight RBIs in a single game. “He picked me up today,” said Stanton, “that’s what a cleanup hitter does — cleans up the garbage in front of him.
Now in his fourth season in the Bronx, Gregorius has hit .277/.317/.436 with 56 home runs, 222 RBIs, and 455 hits in 449 games with the Yankees. The 28-year-old is third in MLB in home runs at the shortstop position since his 2015 debut with New York, behind only world-renowned talents Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor.
As of late, Gregorius has been nearly as good as Correa and Lindor, both AL All-Stars in 2017 and frequent accumulators of MVP votes. In addition, Didi’s 25 long balls last season marked the highest single-season home run total by a Yankees shortstop ever.
The Yankees have been an MLB team in one way or another for 116 seasons. They have 21 jersey numbers retired, and 23 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame don a Yankees cap. Gregorius set a record for home runs at a position that featured Jeter and Phil Rizzuto. The hype surrounding Gregorius is real.
Not only has he handled replacing an international legend like Jeter better than anyone could have imagined, Gregorius has improved year by year and shown Yankees fans flashes of the Jeter of old. He’s arguably the most clutch hitter on the squad, a statement sealed by his position as the cleanup hitter in a lineup with the massive bats of Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez.
On a team chock full of generational talents, and at a position that boasts the same level of extraordinary skill, Gregorius has become an underappreciated, underrated asset. At 28, the Didi Gregorius explosion will continue for years.
On April 6, 2015, Gregorius might have had the worst night of his baseball career. He was booed, he was hit, he was caught stealing, he was the victim of two fly ball outs, and he was quickly villianized for being a cheap, underwhelming replacement for an all-time legend. Now, fans at Yankee Stadium shout and echo the nickname of Mariekson Julius Gregorius.
Fast forward four years and Didi gets the last laugh, completing a circle of insane career transformation that now sees the lefty as an elite shortstop for years to come. In hindsight, it’s safe to say the trade paid off.