A fascinating position in the short-term, and an up-for-grabs position in the long-term. The era of the Yankees most iconic shortstop is coming to an end, but Derek Jeter is out to prove the final chapter hasn’t been written just yet. Even if he’s able to handle the position one more year, he’s surely on the verge of yielding the floor to someone else. Who that might be is anyone’s guess.
Top of the depth chart: Derek Jeter
Backup options: Brendan Ryan
Also coming to camp: Eduardo Nunez, Dean Anna, Yangervis Solarte
Deeper in the system: Abiatal Avelino, Cito Culver, Thairo Estrada, Tyler Wade
We’re all well aware — because of the excellent cell phone photography of our good friend Anthony McCarron — that Jeter is in Tampa right now, taking batting practice and fielding ground balls and talking about being ready to play shortstop regularly this season. We’re also well aware that the Yankees have not so much as hinted at the idea of anyone else being their starting shortstop on Opening Day. Jeter’s about to turn 40 years old, he’s coming off a lost season full of lower-body injuries, but he’s Jeter. That means, even when there’s reason to give up on him, he will be given the opportunity to do Jeter-like things. But, what happens if he can’t?
Lingering question: It’s all about Jeter
For the time being, every other shortstop question comes after this one: Is Jeter still an everyday shortstop? He turns 40 in June, and he played just 17 games last year because of lower-body injuries. That’s a heck of a combination to overcome, but the Yankees have committed $12 million to the idea that Jeter can still do extraordinary things. And given the current circumstances, simply being a passable shortstop and steady table-setter would be pretty extraordinary. There is no questioning Jeter’s career, but it’s easy to question his impact going forward. If he can do it — he did lead the league in hits just two years ago, and his limited range is somewhat mitigated by his remarkably steady hands — then the Yankees will have their Captain in place. But if he can’t, a whole world of uncertainty bursts open. Would Jeter move to a different position? How would he handle moving to the bottom of the order? Could the Yankees find an everyday replacement on short notice? The Yankees are bringing a handful of guys with shortstop experience into camp, but there’s little question that defense-first Brendan Ryan is the backup plan at the moment.
Worth watching this spring: Seriously…
It’s just Jeter. I suppose there’s something to be said for getting a sense of how well Dean Anna can play the position, and it will be interesting to see how much time Eduardo Nunez gets at shortstop, and maybe Ryan will show some flashes of the offense he showed during his early years in St. Louis. But, really, it’s all about Jeter this spring. How’s he moving? Is he able to play a normal spring schedule without setbacks? Can he still hit? Everything else is secondary.
Best-case scenario: No one else quite like him
Jeter faced serious doubters after that relatively disappointing 2010 season, and it didn’t help matters when he got off to a slow start in 2011. But he bounced back in a big way. A strong second half in 2011, and then a .316/.362/.429 slash line in 2012 that led to a Silver Slugger and a seventh-place finish in MVP voting. It’s foolish to hope Jeter will suddenly become a rangy, dynamic fielder. Instead, a steady, mistake-free shortstop is probably the best-case scenario. At the plate, the days of slugging .480 or so are probably long gone, but that slash line from two years ago would be cause of jubilation. It’s Jeter. Does he have another legacy building season up his sleeves?
Worst-case scenario: This thing could get ugly
Really, the worst-case scenario goes beyond on-the-field production. It begins with Jeter being healthy enough to play, but no longer good enough to be productive. That’s the nightmare scenario because no one can predict what would happen next. How would Jeter react? How would Joe Girardi react? How would Brian Cashman react? How would the clubhouse — one that’s full of new superstars who presumably have very little relationship with Jeter — respond to the Captain being relegated to a secondary bench player (or being shoved into the lineup when he doesn’t belong there)? Jeter’s going to be given every chance to prove himself — he’s certainly earned that — but what happens if he can’t do it opens all sorts of uncomfortable questions.
Keep and eye on this year: Abiatal Avelino
Really, there should be three names here because Avelina, Thairo Estrada and Tyler Wade each had nice season in the Gulf Coast League last year. Avelino is generally considered the cream of the crop — he did jump to Staten Island late in the year — bur really, all three are still teenagers, so there’s plenty of time for any one of them to emerge (or disappear). The bigger point is that the Yankees have a handful of intriguing young shortstops who could easy surpass former first-round draft pick Cito Culver if Culver doesn’t finally show some offense this season. These guys are a long way from the big leagues, they’re at least a distance glimmer of hope for an organization that hasn’t found a Jeter replacement so far.
Associated Press photos