After the Joba Confession, the other bit of interesting news from Brian Cashman’s breakfast was his selection of toast—rye, and not wheat or white. There was also a bit of discussion regarding the Ol’ Captain, Derek Jeter and the possibility of his eventually moving off of shortstop. Cashman later clarified his comments. Via the New York Post:
Cashman said he was addressing a hypothetical from WFAN's Mike Francesa, the host of the breakfast where the Q&A took place.
"If you listen to Mike he talks a lot about Jeter moving from short to third and [Alex Rodriguez] going from third to DH," Cashman said in a phone interview this afternoon. "I said that’s not something we’re focused on right now at all. He’s our shortstop and he’s going to do everything in his power to stay there. Mike said that he thought that was the way to go. I said I thought his skill set would take him to the outfield if he was to move off that position."
According to ESPN.com, Cashman compared Jeter’s situation to Robin Yount’s. Yount moved from shortstop to outfield for the Brewers in 1985, when he was 29 years old. Jeter turns 37 in June.
So, it was all a hypothetical, and kind of a pointless one at that. Over the last three years, AL left fielders have had on-base percentages of .337 and slugged .434, center fielders .328 and .406, and right fielders .351 and .450. In two of the last three years, Jeter hasn’t hit enough to be more than average in center, never mind sufficient in a corner. As for center, even if Jeter could hit well enough to carry the position, why would you put him there when you have quality center fielders to chose from, including rangy fielders who are not nearly 40 and trying to learn a new position. That is particularly true of the Yankees, who have the means to never play an aging player out of position, or even an aging player who can no longer play his position, unless they chose to, such as in the case of Bernie Williams.
Think about the benefits to be gained from moving an older player around to keep him in the lineup. Usually, the reason is that you get an offensive lift. When Carl Yastrzemski was older and was no longer a Gold Glove-asset in left field, the Red Sox played him at first base and designated hitter because he was still an above-average hitter. When Mickey Mantle’s legs were too far gone for him to play center field, the Yankees moved him to left field and then first base. Those players had the bats to support the move to positions with a higher offensive bar. Judging by the last three years, and particularly last year, Jeter does not.
Again, this says nothing of defense. If Jeter’s bat won’t carry a corner, Cashman speculates that, like Robin Yount, Mr. November can bring his frosty magic to center field. As the quote above points out, Yount was quite a bit younger when he made the move. Regardless of where they originated, just a handful of center fielders have played 100 games in a season at their position at ages 38 or up. Steven Finley did it four times, Willie Mays and Johnny Cooney three times. Kenny Lofton, Brett Butler, Otis Nixon, Doc Cramer, Tris Speaker, and Jimmy Ryan did it twice each. This is a fairly select group, one which includes two players, Speaker and Mays, who defined play at the position for their times. Presumably they had an extra gear to lose, and were 20-year experts in playing center. They may have been passable in their late 30s and early 40s, but there is no reason to think Jeter will be.
But, you know what? Let’s forget about all that and return to a question I asked above: why would you bother playing a 38- or 40-year-old shortstop in center field or even an outfield corner? What possible benefit could it bring? Curtis Granderson is signed through 2012 with a team option for 2013. Brett Gardner won’t be a free agent until 2015. One of the team’s top prospects, Slade Heathcott, is a center fielder. There will be free agent and trade options, even if center field isn’t exactly the game’s deepest position right now. In short, there is an extremely limited set of circumstances under which Jeter would be a credible solution in the outfield, and most of them involve Act of God-level catastrophes.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth reiterating: I understand that the fans love Jeter, that the Yankees love Jeter, and that Jeter is deserving of all of the approbation he has received, but the resistance to letting the man’s career gracefully sunset is hard to fathom. Everyone from the man on the street to the famous radio host to the general manager has to speculate on what form the next three or four years will take, but we know. There is no real mystery in it. Exactly one player in history didn’t follow the plot laid out for Jeter. It was Barry Bonds, and he had help. Jeter isn’t going to finish up that way, and that’s true regardless of if he has a rebound year in 2011 or not. Time ticks on, and you can bend him, twist him into any shape you like—third baseman, center fielder, umpire, next host of The Tonight Show—and it won’t change his age or his limitations.
I suppose we’re all in denial about those things, and Jeter is just a useful proxy which we use to ward off a future of which we’re fearful.