There were times in 2016 when it was easy to imagine Didi Gregorius as an All-Star. Take June, for example, when he hit .337 with four homers, 18 RBIs and a .903 OPS. Given his consistent defense, it's no question Gregorius was among the elite players in the game that month.
Baseball's regular season, though, grinds on for more than six months. And while Gregorius was pretty good overall in 2016, when he had 20 homers, 70 RBIs and a .751 OPS, he still might not be the first name you think of as a potential breakout All-Star in 2017. But the Yankees see that as a distinct possibility.
"He has been growing before our eyes," GM Brian Cashman said. "I think there is more gas in the tank."
Gregorius turns 27 next month -- that's just two years older than Aaron Judge, who is trying to become the Yankees' starting right fielder as a rookie. In other words, Gregorius is still a very young guy who might be -- might be -- on the verge of becoming a prime-time player.
Last year, Gregorius hit for a better average, with the same number of homers, than the Astros' Carlos Correa. While Correa's .811 OPS was better -- and, to be fair, Correa is five years younger -- the numbers speak to the company Gregorius could soon keep.
"There is still more ceiling there," Cashman said.
When the Yankees acquired Gregorius in a three-team trade that sent right-hander Shane Greene to Detroit before the 2015 season, the knock on Gregorius was that he couldn't hit lefties. He has crushed that reputation. He hit .320 against lefties in 2016.
"His offense is where he is continuing to improve," Cashman said.
The interesting aspect is that, while Gregorius might become an All-Star, he might not be the Yankees' long-term answer at short. The Yankees' system is loaded at the position, beginning with Gleyber Torres.
Torres, 20, is arguably the team's top prospect. Cashman acquired him as one of the main pieces in the Aroldis Chapman deal with the Cubs. Besides Torres, the Yankees have Jorge Mateo, Wilkerman Garcia, Tyler Wade, Hoy Jun Park, Thairo Estrada and Kyle Holder. Basically, they'll have potential major league shortstops at every minor league level.
Not only will this give Cashman depth to trade from, but, because they're all shortstops, the Yankees can possibly repeat what they did with Alfonso Soriano. In the minors, Soriano was a shortstop, but Derek Jeter was in front of him, so Soriano was moved to second base and later to the outfield. The Yankees are already adding versatility to their minor league shortstops, moving them around both the infield and outfield.
"If you have the physical ability to project to play shortstop at the major league level, that also means you have the skill set to play second, third, typically center, left or right because of your speed and the arm," Cashman said. "So, first and foremost, it provides a great deal of creativity and flexibility that you can have with that athlete."
Cashman said Gregorius showed "a lot of mental fortitude" when he came to the Yankees. Tasked with the impossible -- filling Jeter's shoes at short -- Gregorius played as if he had never seen a baseball diamond before. During his first month as a Yankee, in April 2015, Gregorius couldn't hit, couldn't field and couldn't run the bases.
"That can drown you in this marketplace," Cashman said. "You might not recover from that. Yet he stayed the course. He fought through it. He has been extremely productive on both sides of the ball and has been a joy to watch. He should be very proud of himself. He has accomplished a lot in a very short time frame. There were a lot of questions if he could or couldn't. He certainly has answered a lot of questions in a very short time frame in a very positive way."
None other than Alex Rodriguez mentored Gregorius during that trying time. Gregorius, then and now, demonstrates a hunger to learn.
"It is a process," Rodriguez said at the time. "Didi is going to be a fine shortstop here for a long time. I told him sometime around June 15 or June 1, he is going to look at all of us and say he feels much more comfortable."
A-Rod was right on. Now, two years later, Gregorius could take it to another level.