In his second season as Yankees manager, Joe Girardi made a change at the top of the order. He swapped Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon, moving Jeter into the leadoff spot and dropping Damon to No. 2. It wasn’t an entirely new concept — Jeter had been a leadoff man before — but it was bold, and when Jeter responded with a near-MVP season, it seemed only natural that he’d return to the role in 2010. Now that Jeter is coming off the worst season of his career, a return to the No. 1 spot is up for debate.
Curtis Granderson was a leadoff man in Detroit, but he didn’t get a single start in the leadoff spot last season. Robinson Cano is coming of a .381 on-base percentage, but his bat is better suited for the middle of the order. Ultimately, the top-of-the-lineup decision seems to be between the incumbent Jeter and the upstart Brett Gardner.
The easy choice
There’s nothing easier than sticking with The Captain. He’s one year removed from a .334/.406/.465 season, and that slash line would look awfully good in the leadoff spot. Jeter worked with Kevin Long this winter, trying to quiet this swing and rebound from the worst season of his career. Whether it will work is anyone’s guess, but Jeter has a Hall of Fame track record, and he might very well be given the benefit of the doubt. Spring training numbers don’t often mean much, but if Jeter is productive this spring, it could be enough to earn a return to the leadoff spot (at the beginning of the season, anyway).
Gardner was unusually patient hitter last season. Almost uniquely patient. Even when he struggled through a wrist injury in the second half — an injury that certainly contributed to his sudden inability to hit for average — Gardner still carried a solid .364 on-base percentage after the all-star break. When healthy, he reached base nearly 40 percent of the time. That ability to consistently reach first base — and run when he gets there — seems to make Gardner an ideal leadoff hitter, but his track record is slim. Gardner had one good season. Jeter had one bad one. Is that enough to swap places in the lineup?
Another option might be a platoon situation at the top of the order. Gardner’s platoon splits are not especially pronounced — especially in terms of on-base percentage — but Jeter’s splits are significant. Even in his worst season, Jeter still hit .321/.393/.481 against left-handers last year. The Yankees could use Gardner at the top of the lineup against right-handed starters, and keep Jeter in the top spot against lefties.
A separate but related issue
If one season is enough to prompt a change in the leadoff spot, might is also be enough to prompt a change at No. 3? Last season, Cano was an MVP candidate while Mark Teixeira was productive but not quite his old self. Will Teixeira’s previous track record of consistency be enough to keep the middle of the lineup unchanged? The Yankees must also decide what to do with Nick Swisher, who opened last season as the No. 8 hitter and finished as the No. 2. Is he best suited in a run-producing spot (No. 6 maybe) or should he return to the No. 2?
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