This one is kind of difficult, mostly because I’m not entirely sure how far to go. Which extremes are plausible?
Past, present, future
Derek Jeter says he’ll be fine. His ankle has healed, he’s out of the walking boot and there’s plenty of time to get ready for Opening Day. If he’s right, and he’s legitimately 100 percent on April 1, then just maybe he can repeat last season. If you’re going to shoot for the moon, dream of a return to his 2009 form, but to me that seems a little too far out of reach. If Jeter is healthy on Opening Day, mobile enough to play his brand of reliable, by-the-book defense, and able to give the Yankees a steady on-base presence at the top of the order, that’s the most the Yankees could possibly ask for. This is Jeter we’re talking about, so maybe he’s got another surprise up his sleeve, but a repeat of 2012 is a pretty good best-case scenario.
Part of that best-case scenario might involve keeping Jeter off the field from time to time to keep his legs strong and his body healthy. For that to work, the Yankees are going to need some impact from Eduardo Nunez. Sure, Jayson Nix can do the job, but the best-case scenario has Nunez getting regular starts in the field against lefties. It would allow Jeter to rest and give Nunez a chance to take the necessary steps forward defensively. If Nunez can finally add consistency to his considerable tools, the Yankees just might be able to get one or two more years out of Jeter while also preparing for his inevitable retirement.
For the system to add depth at the position, the team is going to need results from Cito Culver and Austin Aune. The Yankees have said Culver’s at-bats have been better than his results, and if he can finally put up some offensive numbers to go with his steady glove, the Yankees will have a legitimate young shortstop prospect on the rise. Coming up right behind him, Aune is going to have to do the opposite in his first full professional season. There are fewer concerns about Aune’s bat, and if he can prove himself as a viable defensive option at shortstop, the Yankees could begin to build real depth and long-term possibilities at the position.
Wanted: One big league shortstop
If Jeter is wrong — if he doesn’t have time to get ready for Opening Day, if all this missed time has finally left his range too limited for even his steady hands to handle the shortstop position — the Yankees will have to find an immediate solution at the position. Their first choice would almost certainly be Nunez, with hopes that steady playing time will lead to steady results. And if they’re wrong about that as well — if Nunez makes familiar errors and leaves the team with a familiar decision to banish him to Triple-A — the Yankees could fall back on Nix to be their regular shortstop. Either that, or they’ll have to go shopping for a replacement.
Shopping for a new shortstop would have ramifications beyond 2013 because, if the Yankees don’t have a dependable option this year, it means they don’t have a dependable option beyond this year either. That means spending some of their limited 2014 payroll on a shortstop, all while also either A: Paying Jeter for his 2014 player option or B: Having Jeter turn down the option, creating an offseason distraction of whether the Yankees should re-sign their most iconic player of the past two decades.
And it goes without saying that the worst-case scenario also leaves the Yankees without a long-term shortstop solution. In the lowest levels of the minors, Culver’s bat might once again stall at roughly a .215 average with extremely limited power, and Aune’s glove might prove too limited for the infield. If Jeter can’t play, Nunez can’t field, Culver can’t hit, and Aune can’t stick, the Yankees will have a organizational black hole at the position that’s been as steady as any since Jeter first arrived.
Associated Press photos