Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but there certainly seems to have been something symbolic about Derek Jeter’s broken ankle. It was the postseason, the Yankees offense was clearly lost, and their most consistent hitter was in the dirt, unable to stand. If Jeter couldn’t pick himself up, what chance did the Yankees have? Shortstop and closer have been the Yankees most consistent positions for nearly two decades, but as each year passes, we get closer and closer to finding out what’s next. For now, shortstop belongs to the same familiar face, perpetually forced to prove himself all over again.
Signed through 2013 (player option for 2014)
The 2010 season changed the way Jeter is viewed from year to year. Once an aging player shows the signs of decline, everything becomes a question mark. How much longer can he keep this up? Can he still hit? Can he still field? Is this the year he becomes a liability? Even after he led the Majors in hits last season, Jeter still faces that same sense of uncertainty. Not only is he coming off the broken ankle, but he’s also another year older — 39 in June — and history has not been good to shortstops at this age. Cal Ripken Jr. had been a third baseman for three years when he turned 39. By the time Ernie Banks turned 39, he’d been a first baseman for eight years. As Jeter prepares to turn 39, the Yankees leave no doubt that they expect him to be a shortstop and nothing else. He’ll get some DH days, but the shortstop position is his, and the Yankees will almost certainly count on him to once again be a productive hitter at the top of the order. How much longer can he do it? I have no idea, but I know we’ll keep asking that question until he proves he can’t.
On the verge
As far as I can tell, there’s one strong argument in favor of the Yankees making Eduardo Nunez a full-time shortstop but not trading him. That argument has everything to do with the perpetual question of how much longer Jeter can last. As long as Jeter is in place, Nunez’s big league role must come as a utility player or as a platoon DH/SS, and neither of those roles is likely to provide the steady playing time that might help Nunez improve his defensive shortcomings and live up to this lofty idea that he can be an everyday guy. Nunez seems to be one of the Yankees 25 best players, which suggests he belongs on the big league roster. But he’s also the only real alternative if Jeter truly can’t do it any longer. Jayson Nix has proven himself to be a steady utility man, but if the Yankees have to pass the shortstop torch, it’s Nunez who’s poised to take it, and getting him ready for that responsibility might require sending him back to the minors to work on the most fundamental part of the job.
Deeper in the system
Not so long ago, back in 2010, the Yankees took a first-round gamble on an athletic, switch-hitting high school kid. Cito Culver was a somewhat controversial choice, but the Yankees believed in his glove, and they thought the upside was significant. It was their chance to get a legitimate shortstop prospect in the system — Carmen Angelini clearly wasn’t the answer — and the Yankees were prepared to be patient. After two-plus seasons, there’s still considerable uncertainty. The Yankees still believe in Culver’s glove and say there’s no doubt he can stick at the position, but he hit .215/.321/.283 in Charleston last season. The Yankees insist it’s far too early to give up on him, and it’s worth noting that Culver just turned 20 years old in August. There’s still a lot of time, and still a lot of questions. In the 2012 draft, the Yankees took another shot on an athletic high school shortstop, drafting Austin Aune in the second round. A highly recruited football player, he’s kind of the opposite of Culver: Fewer questions about his bat, jury still out one whether he can stick at short. On the organizational ladder, Claudio Custodio fits right between Culver and Aune. He had success against lefties but struggled against righties in Staten Island last year.
It’s not often that a player moves from a different position to suddenly become a shortstop. If anything, the Yankees give their prospects every opportunity to stick at short before moving them elsewhere. Until last season, it seemed that Addison Maruszak — drafted as a shortstop — had played his way out of the shortstop conversation and was quickly becoming an organizational utility man. Last season, though, Maruszak emerged with a .276/.330/.457 slash line in Trenton, playing his way from utility infielder to everyday shortstop. Maruszak has never generated much prospect buzz, and if he has any sort of big league future it’s probably in a utility role, but it’s interesting that he played well enough to gain an everyday job last season. That’s especially true given that shortstop is a pretty thin spot in the upper levels of the Yankees system.
What to watch
Jeter’s ability to maintain and Culver’s ability to develop are obviously worth watching, but those aren’t exactly hands-on situations. They either happen or they don’t. It’s going to be interesting to see — and second guess — the Yankees treatment of Nunez. There’s a case to be made for using him as a utility infielder (big league ready bat and speed), sending him to Triple-A (someone has to be ready in case Jeter starts to slip) or trading him (could bring back a piece more valuable than a bench player).
Associated Press photo; headshots of Jeter, Nunez, Culver and Maruszak