BY BOB KLAPISCH
Shortstop Didi Gregorius, 25, has wowed Yankees manager Joe Girardi with his high-velocity snap throws to first base.
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – So where’s Derek Jeter been? The former captain lives only a few minutes from Steinbrenner Field, but has been a ghost since spring training opened. Actually, it doesn’t take much detective work to track down Jeter – he was recently in Tokyo, helping raise funds for children affected by the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. And Jeter has already said he’ll miss opening day in the Bronx.
These aren’t just scheduling conflicts; it’s Jeter’s premeditated plan to snuff out his last competitive gene. He saw what happened to Andy Pettitte, who came out of retirement in 2012 only weeks after visiting the Yankees’ clubhouse as a guest instructor.
Pettitte was still too connected to the game to stay home, and “Derek learned from that,” Joe Girardi said. The manager keeps in touch with Jeter, so there were no hard feelings when the captain blew off camp. To the contrary, Girardi says not having Jeter around has helped Didi Gregorius assimilate.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it, considering Jeter’s decades-long relationship with the Yankee family. If anyone understands synchronicity in the Bronx, it would be the cool, professional Jeter. What better mentor could Gregorius ask for?
After all, Mariano Rivera has been in camp the last two years, endorsing David Robertson in 2014, and more recently pumping up Dellin Betances despite the big right-hander’s terrible preseason.
Jeter theoretically could’ve done the same for Gregorius. All it would’ve taken is one day at his old locker, one visit with the kid, one photo op – big smile, arm slung around the shoulder, and Gregorius would’ve hit the PR lottery. At least that’s one way of looking at it.
But Jeter actually has done Gregorius a favor staying away, sparing him the monsoon of questions about replacing the most popular player in Yankees history.
Robertson, remember, already was a proven commodity. So is Betances. Gregorius is just 25, with just three National League seasons on his résumé. He’s a stranger, an out-of-towner trying to forge his own identity. Gregorius politely addressed Jeter’s legacy when camp opened in February, but was grateful when reporters eventually stopped raising the topic.
Today, Gregorius simply says, “There’s no way I can be Derek, I just want people to see me, Didi.”
Girardi might’ve appreciated the gravitas of a Jeter appearance, but he’s also paid to look out for his younger players. Truth is, the manager is glad Jeter receded into the background, believing it has as much to do with sparing Gregorius as it does with beginning his retired life.
“By Derek not being around, maybe there’s been less of a stir for Didi,” Girardi said. “Not that I think Didi would get caught up in it, because he’s always got a smile on his face. But there’s no doubt it’s helped.”
Ideally, Gregorius could make things easier on himself with a hot April, or at least better than Tino Martinez’s debut when he replaced Don Mattingly in 1996. But there’s no need for Gregorius to impress his teammates; they’re already infatuated with his speed and quickness. And mostly, they love to talk about his arm.
At least one scout is convinced Gregorius hits 90 mph on routine throws to first. Girardi marvels at his new shortstop’s velocity, not unlike Shawon Dunston’s legendary heat, but “his Didi has a much shorter arm stroke” than Dunston, the scout said.
“Didi throws like a catcher, almost like he snaps the ball,” Girardi said. “You normally don’t see infielders throw that hard with such short arm strokes. It’s pretty amazing to watch.”
There’s plenty more to like about Gregorius, notably his range. The vast army of Jeter loyalists will be shocked at how far Gregorius will go to his left and how powerfully he can deliver a strike from deep in the hole.
That’s the real key to appreciating Gregorius in the post-Jeter era. He’s not replacing the younger, more mobile Jeter of the late ’90s and early 2000s, but the slower, creakier version we saw last summer.
Gregorius is explosive and far more athletic. One talent evaluator said this week the Yankees have “a future Gold Glover” in Gregorius. And perhaps just as significantly, he’s got the temperament to handle close scrutiny.
Gregorius is as laid back as Bernie Williams, as cheerful as Rivera, and a million miles away from A-Rod’s neuroses. When I asked Gregorius about April in the Bronx and whether he needs to make a good first impression, he said, “To me, it’s all about the whole season. It’s not just April. I want to play well all the way through.”
Of course, fully assessing Gregorius means taking a hard look at his offense, too. He went 2-for-4 against the Rays on Thursday, raising the preseason average to .308, but there’s still a case to be made against his vulnerability to left-handers. His .480 OPS against southpaws is nearly 200 points below the major league average for shortstops.
The Yankees, however, say they’re willing to set the bar fairly lower for Gregorius. They’re counting on Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira to catalyze the offense, and for Gregorius’ defense to justify keeping him in the lineup, regardless of his deficiencies at the plate.
Either way, Gregorius says he’s ready for his initiation. With Jeter out of the way, the horizon is wide open.
“I can’t wait to wear this in New York,” Gregorius said, motioning to the pinstripe jersey in his locker.
No other words were necessary. Certain smiles say everything.