The 2013 season has been an unmitigated disaster at shortstop for the New York Yankees. They have used eight different shortstops, more than any other team in baseball, and just about nothing good has come from the position. Derek Jeter never recovered from the devastating ankle injury suffered in the 2012 ALCS. Eduardo Nunez was a colossal mess, as he was injured when the Yankees needed him most, and when healthy, he was arguably the sixth-worst player in baseball. Jayson Nix, Reid Brignac, and Alberto Gonzalez were just as horrible as expected.
Only the Miami Marlins have had a worse season than the Yankees at shortstop. It's been a perfect storm of punchless offense and dreadful defense; the team's shortstops have hit a measly .225/.284/.299 with a .261 wOBA, a 57 wRC+, and -2.0 fWAR. This was the end result of simply banking on the 39-year-old Jeter to successfully bounce back from a badly broken ankle last October. Even kids like Ravel Santana and David Adams take a long time to rehabilitate from ankle injuries; hell, Santana still has not really made it back, and he got hurt in 2011. Crossing fingers and hoping Jeter could still fake it at the shortstop position for another year now seems questionable in hindsight.
One could give the Yankees and Jeter the benefit of the doubt since Jeter never had a season with nearly as many health problems as he did in 2013. Maybe it was worth a try to see if Jeter could come back and still gave the Yankees much-needed offense from the shortstop position. As John Harper wrote today in the Daily News, to try to play this game again with a soon-to-be 40-year-old Jeter whose defense sharply declined from 2010-12 anyway is foolish. Craig Calcaterra at "Hardball Talk" echoed Harper's thoughts and emphasized the need to get Jeter on board with the idea as soon as possible:
If Jeter is quoted widely this offseason as saying he’s ready to return to short, the Yankees’ efforts to get an insurance policy shortstop — which they’d certainly need — will be seen as undermining Jeter or trying to push him out. If they sit down with him, however, and tell him that he is not the starting shortstop, that drama evaporates and, instead of people saying that Jeter is toast, he’ll get a lot of favorable Cal Ripken and/or Paul Molitor comparisons.
A strong defensive shortstop is a must-have in baseball, but the Yankees have been able to get away with the defensively-limited Jeter as their starting shortstop for years since his offensive production was terrific. Now though, his health is a significant hurdle in his ability to even stay on the field. The shortstop is moving on almost every play, and Jeter's ankle now has metal in it. Even if his ankle recovers 100%, it remains a highly risky proposition to gamble on the 40-year-old staying healthy, let alone providing any quality of defense.
Jeter has previously been amenable to change. After the 2007 season, GM Brian Cashman took Jeter out to dinner and explained that the Captain simply was not a good defensive shortstop. The defensive metrics might have seemed surprising to those mystified by Jeter's jump plays, but facts were facts, and Jeter's range was horrendous. Jeter took Cashman's advice of improving his defense over the off-season to heart, and he slowly progressed on defense from an awful in '07 to average in '08 to terrific in '09. By 2010 though, age had set in, and as Baseball Prospectus EIC Ben Lindbergh noted recently, this was the real tragedy of Jeter's defense: "Just when he finally found out how to play shortstop, he began to get old."
Jeter needs to be amenable to change once more; he can no longer help the Yankees as a shortstop at all. He's hurting the team. He could perhaps play the occasional game as a backup shortstop to spell the starter, but he must move to a less intense defensive position or off the diamond entirely as a DH, like his friend Jorge Posada had to do in 2011. There will be a few decent shortstops on the free agent market this winter who generate more hope than Nunez, and Harper believes the Yankees will pursue one of them, like Stephen Drew.
Drew signed with the Red Sox last winter for one year and $9.5 million, reportedly turning down the Yankees' offer of one year and $12 million since the Yankees did not guarantee that he would stay at one position. They wanted him to fill in both at short and third base, and Drew preferred to stick to shortstop. Drew has been a smashing success for the Red Sox, as he's hit .247/.328/.432 with a 103 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR this year for Boston. One criticism of his game is that he's done most of his damage at Fenway Park, as evinced by a 175-point difference in OPS on the road (.669) compared to his home OPS (.844).
This is splitting hairs though, as even a .669 OPS would be far better than what the Yankees have received from their shortstops this year (.583 OPS). Plus, Drew is a lefthanded hitter, and it doesn't take an expert to know that lefty hitters tend to thrive with half their games at Yankee Stadium. Drew is a fine defensive shortstop as well, having successfully made a recovery from a similarly bad ankle injury as Jeter's, which he suffered in mid-2011. He went threw a shaky year last season with the Athletics and his original team, the Diamondbacks, but he's returned to the productive player he once was now that he's a starter again. With rookie shortstop Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings, the Red Sox don't need to bring Drew back to Boston. He will be 31 in March, and he would be a fine candidate to sign with the Yankees. All they would need to do is assure him that he would be the full-time shortstop.
The free agent market will also feature Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Due to his recent Biogenesis suspension, he carries a PED cloud around him that the Yankees might not want to bother with considering their own problems with A-Rod and Francisco Cervelli, but if they look past the issue, then they would see Peralta as another possible Jeter replacement. He's had a 120 wRC+ in two of the past three seasons, and he's changed from a bad defensive shortstop growing up with the Indians through 2007 to a superb fielder with the Tigers. Detroit also has a young replacement for their shortstop with the recently-acquired Jose Iglesias. Peralta will be 32 next May and could be available for a lower price than normal since he has the PED assocations.
If the fiscally conscious Rays pass on their $5 million option for Yunel Escobar, he could also be a nice fit for the Yankees. Sure, he's a despicable person, but he ranges from fine to superb on defense in addition to providing decent offense (100 wRC+ in two of the past three years). The righty could be a decent cheap option if he's made available. As Jesse alluded a few days ago, the Yankees could also try the defense-focused approach and bring back defensive magician Brendan Ryan, who is also a free agent. This route seems more questionable to me since the offensively-challenged Ryan could not even hack it as a starter for the Mariners, so I would rather have the Yankees try for Drew or Peralta, but Ryan would still be a much better option than Jeter since it would keep Jeter off the field.
The Yankees are at a crossroads. Mariano Rivera is retiring, and 41-year-old Andy Pettitte might follow him out the door. Posada is long since retired, and Jeter is the last player remaining from those glorious dynasty years. 2014 could be the end for the Captain. He, the Yankees, and their fans should get the opportunity to see him leave with pride, not stumbling around at shortstop and quickly ending up on the DL again. It's time to move on, and hopefully the Yankees realize this in their off-season plans.