TAMPA, Fla. — Gleyber Torres grew up in the Cubs’ organization as a shortstop, and during his first two Bronx seasons, he played 98 games at the position.
But once manager Aaron Boone called Torres during the offseason to inform him that he indeed would be the Yankees’ full-time shortstop this year, Torres had to mentally prepare for the assignment. In many ways, he had begun to think like a second baseman, and just when he had made that transformation, it was time to switch back again.
“Last year, I completely felt comfortable,” Torres said, “like it was my position.”
Torres was ready to stay at second. As long as Didi Gregorius wore pinstripes, Torres figured to be anchored there, and even during his fill-in days, as Gregorius rehabbed from Tommy John surgery, Torres viewed himself as only the part-time shortstop.
That changed when the Yankees made little effort to retain Gregorius, who jumped to the Phillies for a one-year, $14 million contract, and Torres inherited the job.
Defensively, Torres isn’t Gregorius, whose glove was a noticeable upgrade from Derek Jeter’s sunset years. But Torres, 23, is good enough there, especially when you factor in his 62 home runs in 267 career games, second only to Joe DiMaggio (75) for a Yankee in his first two seasons. The Yankees are merely asking him to be solid, and Torres understands the assignment.
“The big thing for me this year is be focused on that,” said Torres, who went 0-for-2 Saturday in the Yankees' 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays at Steinbrenner Field. “I know errors are part of the game. But the routine ground balls, I’ve got to make sure that they’re outs — not errors.”
Former Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph, a longtime spring training instructor, helped with Torres’ transition to second base and now is working with him again as a shortstop. As you might expect, Randolph is a bit of a throwback and can be a tough grader, but he doesn’t spot any red flags with Torres’ defensive ability.
“Even though he’s been a shortstop most of his life, to me it looks like he’s getting re-acclimated to it,” Randolph said. “He’s not your prototypical-looking shortstop today. But he’s got a great arm, he’s got good hands, he does things very fluidly and smoothly, so I don’t see anything where you go 'he’s got to work on this or that.'
“I think for him it’s just getting out there every day and playing there every day, getting his reps, getting comfortable with DJ [LeMahieu]. Then, after a while, you’re going to say he’s always been a shortstop.”
Randolph noted that even if Torres doesn’t provide the same range at the position as Gregorius, that can be neutralized to some extent through data-driven infield alignments. Spray charts have never been more precise, and a hitter’s tendencies are broken down in minute detail.
“With the shifts, you don’t have to worry about positioning,” Randolph said. “And once he gets to balls, he’s got a good clock. His rhythm is always no rush, no panic. I don’t think there’s anything this kid needs to worry about.”
Torres should be fine at shortstop, plus he inflicts far more damage on opponents than whatever mishaps his glove occasionally creates. His 38 homers last season were tied for second-most by a middle infielder in Yankees history (Alfonso Soriano hit 39 and 38) and his 90 RBIs were the most by a Yankee in his age-22-or-younger season since Mickey Mantle had 102 in 1954.
“I think he’s very confident in himself,” Boone said. “I think he takes a lot of pride in the work he puts in during the offseason. Obviously going back full-time to shortstop now, that’s another step for him. But I feel really good about him being able to handle it. He’s one of those guys you know wants to be great at this and knows what he’s capable of.”
Being mentioned in the same breath with DiMaggio and Mantle is heady stuff for a young Yankee, but Torres seems to take it all in stride. He’s not fazed at all by the spotlight or lacking in confidence.
When it was suggested that pitchers could start game-planning for him better at some point, considering that he’s entering only his third season, Torres smiled.
“Too many people last year told me that, before the season, hey, the second year is the hardest year because everybody knows you, blah, blah, blah,” Torres said. “I just said, I’ll go to the field, do my job and we’ll see what happens. The success I had last year was amazing, but this year I have the same mentality. Do my job, try to make adjustments every day and put the ball in play. I’ll try to do the same thing I did last year, too.”
The Yankees will gladly take it. And Torres, despite his youth, has been fairly successful at not only meeting his own expectations but leaping beyond them.
“I believe in myself,” Torres said. “In that first year, I just wanted to hit like 12 or 15 homers and I hit 24. So during that offseason, I told myself, I can hit 30 — why not? And I did. So now I believe in what I can do, so I just play it day by day and we’ll see.