As you’re well aware, Derek Jeter is in the final year of his contract. He’s 35 years old, he’ll be 36 by the end of the season, and the Yankees have a long-standing policy of not negotiating extensions until the winter.* And so, the face of the Yankees will go through the season as a lame-duck shortstop, but there’s no reason to believe he won’t be back for 2011 and beyond. It’s just a matter of how much money and how many years. The Yankees have a handful of promising young shortstops knocking on the door to the big leagues, but I wouldn’t count on any of them taking the Captain’s place.
Starter: Derek Jeter
Backup: Ramiro Pena
Veteran insurance: none
Almost ready: Eduardo Nunez
Low rising: Jose Pirela
True, Jeter is well into his mid-30s, but he’s also coming off a season in which he won both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger, made his 10th all-star team and finished third in MVP voting. He’s been the American League’s Silver Slugger at shortstop each of the past four years. What can I say? The guy’s good. Behind him, the Yankees have a defensive shortstop in Pena and an offensive shortstop in Nunez, plus utility man Reegie Corona has considerable experience at the position. For now, Pena is probably the better option should something happen to Jeter, but Nunez could easily pass him if he can improve his defense (33 errors last season) and his plate discipline (only 22 walks). Pirela is probably the top shortstop in the lower levels, partially because Carmen Angelini’s development has been a struggle.
Worst-case scenario: It makes sense to worry about injuries and a lack of production from most 35-year-old shortstops, but Jeter has shown no signs of such problems. That said, if he does stumble this season, it could make for a messy contract negotiation in the offseason. Replacing Jeter from within — even slightly — would be impossible if Pena’s bat can’t handle prolonged exposure to the big leagues or if Nunez can’t handle his first real taste of Triple-A.
Best-case scenario: Jeter plays like the guy everyone is used to seeing. He puts himself in the discussion for another Gold Glove, he runs away with another Silver Slugger and he leads this team to another World Championship. When it’s over, the Yankees settle on a contract that comes together easily, with very little back and forth. All the while, Nunez continues to rebuild his prospect status, and Angelini finally starts to hit and finally gets his career moving.
The future: Pena’s glove is exciting, Nunez’s bat has come to life and Pirela hit .295 as a 19-year-old, but Jeter remains the past, present and future of the Yankees organization. The lineup might revolve around Mark Teixeira and the pitching staff falls in line behind CC Sabathia, but this is still Jeter’s team. I don’t know how much it will take, and I’m not sure it matters. One way or another, Jeter will be back in 2011, you can bet on it. Shortstop will be his as long as he can be productive at the position. The Yankees aren’t waiting for someone to take the torch, they’re waiting for Jeter to hand it off.
An attempt at the complete depth chart
An educated guess, but just a guess
Scranton: Eduardo Nunez
Trenton: Walter Ibbara (maybe Justin Snyder or Luis Nunez gets regular at-bats?)
Tampa: Jose Pirela (with Addison Maruszak in a versatile infield)
Charleston: Carmen Angelini
Extended: Jose Mojica (unless he swaps places with Angelini)
* In my opinion, the negotiation policy makes sense. The only way it hurts anyone’s feelings is if an exception is made for one player and not another. That’s why the Yankees can’t negotiate with Jeter just because he’s Jeter. It would make everyone else feel second-class, and the policy lets Jeter know that there’s nothing to read into the decision to wait until the offseason.