Have you noticed a theme with these “state of the organization” posts? Three consecutive infield positions — second base, third base and now shortstop — are all in a similar state of absolute uncertainty. Whether because of age, free agency, suspension or injury — or some combination — cornerstone players at these positions have left the Yankees unable to predict what they have left, and the minor league system seems unprepared to fill the potential holes.
Player option for 2014
The expectation seems to be that Jeter will exercise his player option for next season. Beyond that, speculation really hinges on how well Jeter performs this season. But, for now, whether Jeter is about to play his final season is a question for another day. Right now, there are enough questions about Jeter without thinking beyond next season. He’s going to turn 40 in June. He played just 17 games this season while struggling through a series of setbacks related to a broken ankle suffered a year ago. He hit .316/.362/.429 in his last healthy season, and that’s awfully good for a shortstop. But is that sort of production realistic next year? Is Jeter even a shortstop? Can he actually stay on the field, or was last season a sign that his days of durability and reliability have come to a sudden end? Truth is, we just don’t know. My gut feeling is that Jeter would be better off at another position, but I don’t know that for certain. Even with diminished range, there’s a lot to be said for Jeter’s sure-handed, minimal-mistakes approach to the position. He’s expecting to have a normal, full offseason when he can train his legs and regain his lower-body strength. Will that be enough? Again, we just don’t know. We can guess and speculate — and the Yankees might very well have to find a backup plan just in case he can’t do it — but as has been written and said many times, Jeter has defied his critics before. He probably has more doubters than ever before. We’ll have to see how he responds (and how the Yankees react).
How desperately the Yankees need to pursue a shortstop alternative depends entirely on what you think of Eduardo Nunez. Technically, the Yankees most advanced and experienced young infielder is a shortstop with offensive potential who’s completed his player development course and should be fully prepared for the big leagues. Thing is, Nunez has lacked consistency. He showed significant defensive improvements early last season — from spring training through the start of his DL stint — but when he returned from the DL, the errors were back. Nunez has shown solid range and a strong arm, but the steady playmaking has only been there in a flash. As for his offense — which was his calling card when he broke into the big leagues — Nunez hit .290/.329/.432 in the final two months last season, but he hit .225/.283/.303 before that. Again, solid offense for a shortstop in bursts, but not spread across a full season. Nunez is 26 and still not even arbitration eligible, so he’s still very cheap. Given the Yankees long list of infield concerns, they might have to use Nunez in some capacity. Would they — and should they — trust him to be their top alternative to Jeter heading into spring training?
Believe it or not, Cito Culver began to show some signs of life at the plate late this season. Having given up switch hitting, Culver was finally promoted out of Low-A Charleston and hit .355/.394/.484 through 16 games with High-A Tampa. Does it mean anything? Certainly not enough to say he’s figured it out, but Culver’s glove is good, and the Yankees’ other shortstop standouts are similarly unproven. Down the Gulf Coast League this year, three different shortstops put up intriguing numbers: Abiatal Avelino hit .303/.381/.399 with 28 stolen bases (including a 17-game promotion to Staten Island); 17-year-old Thairo Estrada hit .278/.350/.432 and, like Avelino, earned a mention on Baseball America’s Top 20 GCL prospects list; and fourth-round pick Tyler Wade hit .309/.429/.370 and made seven errors, which is pretty good at that level. But these are rookie level players we’re talking about, and there have been plenty of young players who have excelled at that level only to flop on the long road to the big leagues. So who’s the Yankees top prospect at shortstop? I guess it’s Avelino, but there really isn’t one who’s done enough to grab that title and make it mean much.
STATE OF THE ORGANIZATION
Whether it’s already come to an end or not, the Yankees are at the very least near the end of the Jeter era. It’s been more than two decades since he was drafted, and in that time he’s won five World Series and put together a Hall of Fame career. He’s become an icon of the game’s most iconic franchise, and moving past a player like that is rarely easy. The Yankees, though, are facing an extreme level of post-Jeter uncertainty. They could try to bring back Brendan Ryan or tender a contract offer to Jayson Nix, but those are limited and short-term solutions. They could give Nunez another shot, but there’s obvious risk in that. The team’s most promising young shortstops are several years away with absolutely no certainty that they’ll clear all the hurdles along the way. If Jeter has another year at shortstop left in him, it would solve a short-term question but leave plenty of long-term mystery. The state of the Yankees at shortstop is watching the end of an era, and having no real way of knowing what to expect when it’s done.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Jeter, Nunez, Culver and Ryan