Friday, October 24, 2008

What To Do With Jeter?

As far back as 2004, when Baseball Prospectus wrote an article about Derek Jeter's declining defense at shortstop (and the fact that Alex Rodriguez, by all rights, should remain at short and Jeter should shift to third base), Yankee fans, in a black, back corner of their minds wondered: what do we do with Derek Jeter when he's finally too old to handle everyday duties at shortstop?

This is not an article to either attack or defend Jeter's defense at shortstop—there are countless rants on the web as to whether Jeter is terrible or brilliant at the 6 spot. No, this article is more about what do the Yankees do when he truly starts to age?

With Alex now firmly entrenched at third for the next decade or so, where do the Yanks put Jeter? Let’s go through the possibilities. Outfield? Jeter has a pretty good arm, but is it right-field-in-Yankee-Stadium good? Is it as good as Winfield's, Barfield's, O'Neill's, or Sheffield's when they manned right field? Frankly, that remains to be seen. Over in left field, there's the question, could Jeter cover Death Valley in Yankee Stadium? He has good instincts, yes, but as a 38-year-old, could he cover the wide swath of outfield in left? He's not getting faster, as evidenced by a career-low 11 steals this year. And never mind the fact that Jeter doesn't have the power that traditionally comes with playing left or right field.

OK, how about first base? Jeter's tall enough, yes, and has the means to be good with the glove there. Buster Olney, ESPN analyst, agrees—"Personally, I think he would be better suited at first base than in the outfield, whenever he makes a move off shortstop, and could become an excellent first baseman." The problem comes in the other half of the inning. First base is traditionally a spot for sluggers—Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado, and Lance Berkman—and Jeter at his best was never a home-run threat. And it's even more true now---Jeter hit 11 home runs last year and his power numbers have been in free fall since the early 2000s.

Which leaves second base. There has been some talk around the baseball world (and New York City in particular) about the Yankees using Cano as a trade chip. The Yankees would then pick up Orlando Hudson or Orlando Cabrera to fill in at 2nd base. And that would make sense for Jeter's move—Hudson or Cabrera could hold down 2nd base for a couple of years until Jeter is ready to make the switch to 2nd base.

Only problem is...Cano is hugely talented and batted .342 a couple of years ago. In 2007, his first full season, he drove in 97 runs...not bad for a second baseman who usually bats down in the order. The problem is that Cano is fresh off a down year, which means his value is lower than it would have been just a season ago. As a result, the Yankees would be selling low. And if Cano bounces back and becomes the double-machine he was a couple of years ago, the Yankees would have given him away for far less than he was worth.

Another problem is Jeter. While 2nd base isn't as important defensively as shortstop, Jeter's diminishing range would still be a problem, just now on the right side.

So it seems there is no ideal place for the Yankees to place Jeter, come 2010 or 2011 or so. Second base might be the spot, if the Yankees can get value for Cano—a frontline starter or an above average 1st baseman—and then sign Hudson or Cabrera for 2 years as a placeholder.

The best answer might be to shift Jeter to 1st base in 2011. Considering Jeter's failing lateral range and his diminishing speed, 1st base seems like the logical choice. Jeter's instincts and height suit him there, and the Yankees can find home-run production from A-Rod, the outfield, and elsewhere.

As for Jeter himself, he's stated he doesn't plan on switching any time soon—he plans to "be the everyday shortstop until his contract runs out in 2010," and would like to man the position afterwards as well. Well, that's all well and good—but considering Jeter is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, he must know the day he isn't the Yankees starting shortstop is coming. And soon.

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