CLEVELAND — Since spring training began in early February, every time Yankees Manager Aaron Boone checked in via telephone or in person with Didi Gregorius, his shortstop who had Tommy John surgery last October, the message was the same.
“I’m ready to go,” Gregorius would say, according to Boone. “Let’s move along. They’re holding me back.”
On Friday, the Yankees held him back no longer: He made his 2019 debut, hitting fifth and starting at shortstop. It was a relatively quick return; after the operation on his throwing elbow last fall, the Yankees conservatively targeted some point this summer for him to begin playing again. It took Gregorius just under eight months.
“Everything has been fine,” he said in the visitor’s clubhouse at Progressive Field before Friday’s game against the Cleveland Indians. “I’ve been working and doing everything the right way, so I’ve got nothing else to work on.”
Gregorius, 29, rejoins a Yankees team that has weathered many injuries to key players: third baseman Miguel Andujar is out for the season, while pitcher Luis Severino and outfielders Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are still recovering. Despite it all, the Yankees entered Friday at 39-22, first in the American League East.
“You guys have seen now over the last few years what he’s meant to our club in so many ways,” Boone said recently. “To get a player like him back is exciting. And the fact that having a serious and significant injury and that everything has kind of gone best case scenario, as far as him rehabbing and getting well and being able to be in this position to return now, is exciting for all of us.”
Gregorius commended the Yankees’ roster for carrying the team, but he admitted he didn’t watch many Yankees games during his rehabilitation. He said he learned much about himself during the tedious recovery, and acquired some new skills.
Gregorius said he bought two pianos — one is in Tampa, where the Yankees’ spring training facility is, and the other in his native Curaçao — and taught himself to play. The only song he knows so far is “All of Me” by John Legend.
Also an avid drawer, Gregorius said he spent three and a half months making a digital animation of himself hitting a home run — in a style inspired by the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie — which he posted on Instagram and Twitter on Friday.
“It’s not like it wasn’t productive,” he said with a smile. He added later, “Everyone has talents. It’s up to you what you want to do with it.”
On the field, Gregorius’s talents may boost the Yankees. He hit .277 from 2016 to 2018, averaging 24 home runs a season, and his left-handed bat helps balance out the Yankees’ right-handed heavy lineup. His presence will alleviate the heavy load carried by Gleyber Torres (14 home runs entering Friday), Gio Urshela and D.J. LeMahieu in his absence; the latter two were each hitting a team-best .323 entering Friday.
“I can’t wait to play with Didi again,” said Torres, who was out of the starting lineup Thursday and Friday with left shoulder soreness, which he said affects him mostly when he swings. He hoped to play on Saturday.
The Yankees plan to ease Gregorius back into the rigors of the major league season. Before having surgery, Gregorius’s strong throwing arm helped make him a stout defender. He insisted it was just as sturdy now following the operation. Boone agreed, but added that time would naturally help Gregorius build more.
His presence requires some juggling of the infield. The initial plan, Boone said, was to give Gregorius one game off per series. In his absence, Torres, who handled shortstop solidly in place of Troy Tulowitzki and Gregorius, would slide over from second base. LeMahieu, a Gold Glove Award-winning second baseman who signed with the Yankees this winter to play all over the infield, would play second base in that scenario.
When Gregorius does play, Boone said Torres and LeMahieu would both be options at second base. LeMahieu can also play third base, which Boone said will primarily be manned by Urshela. The additional player could also be an option in the lineup as the designated hitter.
In general, all players would be getting more off-days, which Boone hoped would keep them fresh for the long haul. “Bottom line, they will all get very regular at-bats,” he said.
Before Friday’s game, Gregorius said it didn’t feel like opening day for him. The Yankees’ season is in full swing and he wanted to return to normalcy right away.
“It’s always good to be back and playing,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. No hiccups.”