clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The luxury of having a franchise shortstop

New, 7 comments

As we usher in a new era of Yankee baseball it helps to remember that Derek Jeter was the exception, not the rule.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Just like last season, the Yankees will enter 2015 having lost the services of a franchise cornerstone in the middle infield. While they've already proven that replacing Robinson Cano's production is close to impossible, they'll be in for an even ruder awakening now that Derek Jeter is gone. He may have been a disappointment on the field over the last two years of his career, but it's worth taking a stroll through Yankees history to see what a rare talent Jeter actually was.

Before Jeter wrote himself into the history books, the Yankee shortstop discussion started and stopped with Phil Rizzuto. The diminutive Scooter was one of the best shortstops of the 1940s and '50s thanks to an excellent glove, good speed, and his ability to make contact. In 11 seasons as the Yankees' regular shortstop he helped them to seven World Series titles and even took home the AL MVP in 1950. During those 11 seasons he averaged about four wins above replacement per year. That's quite a legacy that could have been made even greater had he not spent three years of his prime serving in World War II instead of playing baseball.

The Yankees began the unenviable task of replacing a legend by plugging in the newly acquired Billy Hunter in at shortstop for 1955. Hunter had been an afterthought in a trade that also scored Don Larsen and Bob Turley and he played as such. Unsatisfied, the team turned the keys over to super utility infielder Gil McDougald for the 1956 campaign. Over the next two years, McDougald was the best at his position in the AL, earning All-Star honors and his fair share of MVP votes in both years. As a versatile player, he took his complete skill set over to second base the following season to make room for the young Tony Kubek.

Kubek performed like a prototypical shortstop of the era, fielding his position extremely well while hitting well enough to not be a liability in the lineup. Save for 1962, when Tom Tresh filled in at the position and won rookie of the year in the process as Kubek fulfilled his military duty, he remained a reliable, everyday player until a back injury in 1965 prematurely ended his career. The Yankees maintained a high level of success with Kubek as they won three World Series titles in his seven years as a regular, but he never made anybody forget about Rizzuto.

As the 1960s wore on, the once proud franchise routinely found themselves at the bottom of the American League and the shortstop situation became a microcosm of the team's overall downfall. From 1966 through 1968 the Yankees went 0-for-3 in trying to find a viable replacement for Kubek. Horace Clarke struggled to field the position as a rookie and was moved to second base the following year where he stayed for the rest of his solid, if unspectacular, Yankee career. Ruben Amaro was given a shot in 1967 but produced at nothing more than replacement level. In a desperation move, the Yankees shifted Tom Tresh back to shortstop from the outfield in 1968 for his final full season in pinstripes. His .195 batting average and rapidly diminishing power inspired them to trade him the following season.

In 1969 the Yankees turned to 31-year-old journeyman Gene Michael, the man who would eventually draft Derek Jeter, and the early results were positive. With no power in his game to speak of the man called Stick was still a league average hitter and a plus fielder. For the next four years he remained the starting shortstop but never came close to repeating that type of offensive production and fell to well below replacement level by the time he was 35. The team then acquired Jim Mason to be their starter in 1974 and 1975 while Yankee Stadium got a facelift. Maybe it was because he was playing his home games in the run-sapping environment of Shea Stadium, but the young Mason struggled mightily in his role. After he hit a paltry .152 in 1975 they handed the starting role over to reserve infielder Fred Stanley in 1976. The team finally rose back to prominence in their first full season under Billy Martin's watch by winning the AL pennant, but Stanley's lackluster performance proved he was probably best suited for the bench.

Gearing up for a back to back title run, the Yankees thought they solved their shortstop problem once and for all when they traded left-handed slugger and hair fashionista Oscar Gamble for former All-Star Bucky Dent just days prior to the 1977 season. For the next five seasons Dent established himself as a light-hitting shortstop who was a certified genius in the field. Thanks to his defensive prowess he was worth nearly three wins above replacement per year, a level the team hadn't seen since Tony Kubek. During his tenure he earned those two World Series rings, made two All-Star appearances and etched himself into Yankee lore with what might be the most significant home run in franchise history. Had he not played in the AL at the same time as one of the greatest fielders in baseball history, Mark Belanger, he probably could have won a few Gold Gloves as well.

After a slow start to the 1982 season the Yankees shipped Dent out of town and switched gears by making the recently acquired Roy Smalley the regular shortstop. As a so-so fielder, Smalley's value was tied to his bat and he produced about as well as Dent albeit in a different way. The switch-hitter showed unusual pop for a middle infielder and belted 20 home runs that season with another 18 the following year. However by 1984 production at the position again began to taper off for the Yankees. Smalley's bat was not up to par at the beginning of the year so he was traded mid-season and the team eventually settled on the underwhelming Bobby Meacham to replace him. Meacham was given the job outright in 1985 but he squandered his chance by putting up a terrible .568 OPS in a full season of work. With no better option in 1986, the Yankees swung a deal for veteran Wayne Tolleson in July of that year. For the next season and a half he got the everyday gig but provided very little value as his .547 OPS in 1987 was even worse than Meacham. Things sunk to a new low in 1988 when New York Mets retread Rafael Santana was brought in to fix the shortstop problem. Unfortunately he was a major disappointment, performing well below replacement level.

As the overall team play went from bad to worse between 1989 and 1991, the production at shortstop actually improved slightly thanks to an under the radar player named Alvaro Espinoza. Offensively he didn't offer much improvement over the duds that came before him but his comically large glasses must have been good for something because he was a superb fielder with the Yankees. Despite his slick glove, the team decided to part ways with Espinoza prior to the 1992 season and gave the bulk of the playing time at shortstop to rookie Andy Stankiewicz. Stanky had made a slow climb up the organizational depth chart and he made the most of his opportunity. On the field he was basically a facsimile of Espinoza with a bit more patience at the plate, making him an above average shortstop. Injuries cost him most of the 1993 season and he would never play for the Yankees again.

During that 1993 season the team relied on the freshly signed Spike Owen at short and after one forgettable season he was unceremoniously traded which meant veteran infielder Mike Gallego was the next man up for the job. With the team very much on the rise Gallego provided a steady hand and a decent enough bat before the players' strike cut the season short and devastated the Yankee fanbase. When he departed via free agency before the 1995 season the Yankees signed another aging veteran in Tony Fernandez. Even though he was now a shell of the player that had been a perennial All-Star with Toronto a decade earlier he performed well enough to help the team to its first playoff berth in 14 years. That playoff was ultimately a bust, but the seeds of success were sewn.

You know how the rest of this goes. After 40 years of occasionally good, sometimes horrendous, and overall below average production at shortstop the Yankees finally had their man in 1996. For the next 19 years all Derek Jeter did was hit, say the right things, and above all else, win. Just like Phil Rizzuto, he too averaged about four wins above replacement per year over the span of his career and it's probably no coincidence that it was concurrent with a run of success for the Yankees that no other franchise has rivaled. Now that Jeter's legacy is sealed and the retirement fiasco is over, history tells us that it could be at least another 40 years before we see a player even remotely like him again. In the meantime shortstop for the Yankees is sure to be a revolving door of young players that don't last or even pan out in the first place, patchwork veterans that are nothing more than adequate, and most of all a source of frustration for fans that will pine for the days of Derek Jeter in his prime.

So please bear this in mind when the inevitable jeers are showered upon Didi Gregorius next year for not being as good as the shortstop that defined the franchise for two decades. Nobody could possibly live up to that expectation. And anyway, Jeter is the type of player that should have been savored as a luxury when he was there, not suffered as a loss when he's not.