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D-backs shortstop Didi Gregorius starts spring healthy, welcomes competition for starting job

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Entering just his second full big league season, Didi Gregorius already finds himself in unfamiliar territory.

The 23-year-old no longer holds the distinguished title as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ up-and-coming shortstop. No, this spring Gregorius represents the incumbent simply trying to keep his stranglehold on a job that prized farm hand Chris Owings also intends to lay claim to.

Of course, the irony is that the 6-foot-1 Dutchman is still very much a spring chicken in his own right.

With only 111 career games under his belt and an up-and-down rookie campaign behind him, Gregorius admits he’s not only looking to earn the starting job in 2014, he’s searching for sustainability.

“I’m just happy to play,” Gregorius said. “Last year, I had a setback with my elbow, but this year I’m healthy and going for it.

“I was still playing in the spring but just DH’ing. The only thing I wasn’t able to do was play defense. It was kind of tough, because I always want to work on offense and defense at the same time. Things happen, so I had to adjust and work offensively at that time.”

Gregorius’ right elbow strain forced him to begin his first season with the D-backs on the disabled list — setting the stage for a campaign that lacked any real sense of consistency.

Because he was able to swing the bat during the exhibition slate of games, Gregorius returned to Arizona’s lineup in mid-April with a literal and figurative bang.

In his first at-bat as member of the D-backs, the former amateur free agent took Phil Hughes deep for a solo shot, highlighting a 2-for-5 day at the plate in a road win over the New York Yankees. Gregorius would go on to record eight multi-hit games in his first 15 starts, but his burst with the lumber would be short-lived.

Each month, Gregorius’ batting average dipped and dipped and dipped some more — from .407 to .293 to .241 to .234 to .197 to .187.

The rookie had more or less been found out.

Left-handed pitchers began to pound the inner third of the plate, off-speed offerings increased with each passing plate appearance and a once promising offensive season went by the wayside in a hurry.

“If you can get through spring training, it’s going to help you,” D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said. “If you get behind like he did, then he went through rehab and then we had a need and brought him back probably a little early. He did really well for us. He was outstanding.

“But it was a pretty hard pace to keep up. It’s just like any youngster or any player, if you get off to hot start and then are unable to sustain that, it puts a lot of pressure on you. He got hard on himself, but the experience is going to help him from last year.”

While Gregorius finished the season with a respectable .252 batting average to go along with seven home runs and 28 RBI, his struggles as a rookie have set up an interesting dynamic as the calendar creeps towards March and April.

Thought to be the untapped treasure in the three-team deal that sent former No. 3 overall pick Trevor Bauer to the Cleveland Indians just 15 months ago, Gregorius already sits squarely at the crossroads of his profession, forced to survive in the cutthroat, “What have you done for me lately?” culture.

The pressure for the D-backs shortstop isn’t solely to remain healthy this spring, it’s to prove he deserves to be out on the diamond for the majority of the team’s 162 games rather than serving as a platoon player with a pretty glove.

And with Owings, the reigning Pacific Coast League MVP who hit .291 with five multi-hit games in 13 starts with Arizona last September, nipping at his heels, the task at hand for Gregorius doesn’t appear to be a simple one.

Yet, he insists he’s unperturbed by what lies ahead.

“My mentality is always to go out and do my best,” said Gregorius, who finished with only the 17th best fielding percentage among MLB shortstops with at least 100 games played in 2013. “So this year I’m just trying to be the best that I can be and keep making progress.

“There’s always competition. So it’s good to have that. It’s fun for me. I think it can bring out the best in you.”