Didi Gregorius certainly wasn't handed an easy task in taking over the shortstop position from Derek Jeter in 2015. Despite the enormity of the shoes he had to fill, Gregorius has rarely let anything about replacing the legendary captain alter his game. In his first campaign in pinstripes, Gregorius fought through a tough stretch at the start and then found his swing, finishing with a .265 batting average, nine home runs and 56 RBI.
The shortstop, who grew up in Curaçao, was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 2007 and traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in December 2012. Before being dealt again, this time to the Yankees at the end of 2014, Gregorius toiled between the Minors and Big Leagues for two seasons.
Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III sat down with Gregorius during Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., and followed up with the shortstop in late April at Fenway Park in Boston.
How do you feel you developed as a player during the two years you spent in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization?
During that time, I was trying to learn about myself as a player and trying to get a little bit better every day. Even though I wasn't playing every day, I was trying to get a sense of what I needed to improve on the most. I pushed myself a lot during that first year in batting practice and other workouts because I wasn't playing that much. It was hard to find a good rhythm at the plate, though.
But they sent me to Triple-A during my second season in the organization, and I played about 60 games down there. That's when I started improving the most because I was gaining in-game experience every single day. When I got called back to the Majors that season, I knew what I needed to do each day in the batting cages to find a rhythm and be ready to compete when I was called upon.
From the day the Yankees traded for you, it was clear that the hope was that you would emerge as the starting shortstop in New York. How did you feel about the trade and the value the Yankees put on you?
Well, I didn't know if I was going to be the guy for the whole year. I still felt like I had to fight for the position. But when I got to Spring Training with the Yankees, Joe Girardi talked to me about how much playing time he wanted me to get, so I had a clear picture of what the best-case scenario could be. I started really slow, but he still believed in me and kept me out there. He continued to teach me how to handle things the right way. I got a lot of advice from all of our veteran players, and that really helped me get past those first few months.
Video: NYY@TOR: Gregorius robs Barney of hit
Did you believe you were ready to be an everyday Major League shortstop when the Yankees traded for you?
Yes. I had no reason to think otherwise. That was my goal from the time I began playing professional baseball.
Before the season began, did you pay much attention to all the talk about you being the guy who would replace Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees, and did it affect you in any way?
My mindset was to just go out there and play the game. I really wasn't worried about anything else. I'm all about controlling what I can control, playing the game the right way and always trying to get better. To be completely honest with you, those were the only things I was focused on.
Regardless of how focused you were on what you could control, there's no doubt that replacing a legend has its fair share of challenges. What advice would you give to whoever replaces Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos, or any other sports legend for that matter?
I would tell that person to always be mindful that they are in that position for a reason. If the team believes you are good enough to be the next guy, then just be yourself and work hard to constantly improve. Do things the way you've always done them, and most importantly, don't try to be like the other guy.
Do you talk to Derek at all these days?
Yes. We've had a few conversations over the phone and via text.
Has he imparted any advice that you've used?
Well, I use everything that Derek says. But the thing that sticks out the most is when he told me to just be myself and not try to do too much.
What did you learn from your early-season struggles last year?
I learned that if you are relaxed out there, you'll be a better player. I was trying to do too much during those first few months. I was trying to make plays that were out of my reach. I was trying to hit a home run every time I came to the plate, or get three hits in one at-bat. I wanted to play well right away, but when that didn't happen, Carlos Beltran, Joe Girardi and Alex Rodriguez, along with other veteran players, talked to me about relaxing. They assured me that everything would fall into place, and they told me to just play my game. They really gave me that confidence that everything would eventually turn around.
How impactful was the work you did with hitting coach Alan Cockrell in 2015?
He gave me a better understanding of how pitchers were attacking me. I try to focus on what pitchers are trying to do and where they're going to throw the baseball. I learned the importance of going into each game with a plan and sticking with it even if I got behind in the count or had a bad at-bat early in the game.
How satisfying was it for you when you were able to turn things around?
It was nice to silence the critics. Since the day I signed my first professional contract, people said I was never going to be a great hitter.
Who said that?
Everyone said it at one time or another, and that's just part of the game. Unless you're a natural hitter from birth, people who follow the game are always going to critique your play in some way. But there aren't many guys who can hit .300 or hit 40 home runs as soon as they get to the Big Leagues. If that were the case, Major League Baseball would be filled with superstars, and that's not the case. I had to learn that people are always going to find something to criticize about you. But last year was a period of improvement for me, and I enjoyed it.
What is your offseason regimen like?
I'm on the field, working on hitting and fielding, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I work out at home on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
When you went back to Curaçao last offseason, how did your family and friends react to what you had accomplished?
They were excited for me. My family has been with me since day one. They helped me through my struggles last season, and they were with me when I succeeded. Even though I did well in the second half of the season, they kept pushing me to work hard. I'm lucky to have great friends at home, and they have been really supportive.
How would you compare the confidence you had going into this season with the way you felt prior to last season?
It's almost incomparable. The way I finished the season last year gave me a lot of confidence. That helped me to realize that I could be a good player for a long time. But I also knew that the pitchers were going to make adjustments in how they approach me, so you never really know how things are going to work out.
I've tried to make adjustments as the season went along, and I feel like I've done a good job at that. I talked to Carlos [Beltran] and Starlin Castro in Spring Training about how they handle tough stretches during the season, and I feel like I have a better perspective on that than I did last season.
How have you grown as a player since you first put on the pinstripes?
I feel like I got mentally stronger and started blocking out everything but playing the game. That has helped me more than anything else.
You've talked about the importance of getting advice from veteran players. Who has helped you the most?
Carlos Beltran. I have spent the most time with him. He pushed me throughout my first season here and again this year.
It seems like you're always smiling out on the field. How much do you enjoy playing baseball?
I look at it in terms of what else I could be doing, and there aren't a lot of other jobs I would rather have. I enjoy playing for the Yankees because I'm around a great group of guys, and everyone on this team helps each other.
For me, it's all about the team I'm on. If you have teammates with negative attitudes, that drags you down. But if everyone comes to the stadium with an upbeat and positive attitude, regardless of whether we are playing well or not, then you really look forward to each day. It's hard for anything to break the spirit of this team because we are a cohesive group, and we really have each other's backs.
What did you enjoy most about this particular spring?
I enjoyed working with Starlin Castro almost every day from the beginning of Spring Training. It's amazing how quickly we became friends. Hopefully, the best is yet to come, but it's been a lot of fun already.
What's been the most challenging part of the season so far?
We played better last April than we have in the first month this season. We haven't won as many games as I feel we are capable of winning, and I haven't played at the level I can play at. But I feel that things will improve for our team and for me. We have the talent and the mindset necessary to turn things around.
At this point in your career, what do you want to improve on?
I want to improve on everything. I have not reached my full potential at the plate or defensively yet.
What are the short-term and long-term goals you have set for yourself?
I have one goal, and that's to win a World Series ring. That's my short-term goal and my long-term goal.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the June issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.