Nobody, not even Brendan Ryan, wants Derek Jeter to be worse than Brendan Ryan next year. Unfortunately, given Jeter's age and injury history, it is a very real possibility. Jeter will be 40 next season while Ryan will turn 32 next March. Over the last three years, Jeter has 1,420 plate appearances, 4.3 fWAR and 2.4 bWAR. Over the last three years Ryan has 1,313 plate appearances, 3.8 fWAR and 7.7 bWAR. While UZR (used by fangraphs.com) did not like Ryan's defense quite as much as Baseball Info Solutions (used by baseball-reference.com), Ryan's defense carried the way under both metrics to provide as much or more positive value than Derek Jeter in fewer plate appearances.
Without rehashing the last spring's discussions on whether Jeter was done as a shortstop or a productive player, a 40-year old shortstop is something of a rarity. Since 1901, only three shortstops have played more than 100 games at shortstop in their age-40 season (Omar Vizquel, Luke Appling, and Honus Wagner per Baseball-Reference play index). Jeter has bucked the aging trend before. In 2012, Jeter played in 135 games at shortstop, making him only the seventh 38-year old to achieve that mark since 1901. Perhaps more amazing, only Honus Wagner had a better offensive season among those seven players.
If Jeter can be as good as a hitter in 2014 as he was in 2012 and not decline in the field, he will be a very valuable member of the Yankees and easily worth his salary. Jeter's ankle problems and the two years that will have passed since his last productive season make both of those scenarios unlikely. As for Brendan Ryan, he is absolutely atrocious at the plate. No player has a worse offensive WAR according to Fangraphs over the last four years. However, the reason he has been allowed to accumulate such shoddy numbers is the superlative defense he provides. In those same four years, only Alexei Ramirez (in 123 more games) has provided better defense among non-catchers according to UZR, and only Gerardo Parra bested Ryan according to Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved. Based on those numbers, it is not difficult to reach the conclusion that Ryan is the best defensive player among non-catchers in the league over the last four years.
With a little bit of luck and stabilization of his defensive numbers, Ryan could very well be a one or two-win player in 2014. Last year's Yankee shortstops hit .228/.286/.312, which is, scarily, only slightly better than Ryan's .215/.285/.294 over the last three years hitting mostly in Seattle. The key to this comparison will not be Ryan's offense or Jeter's defense. The key is whether Jeter can still hit at the same level as he did in 2012. If he can, that leads to a question: is it worth risking his body out in the field when he can provide a solid contribution as the designated hitter?
At this point in his career, Jeter's mobility is likely sapped to the point where the runs he costs the team in the field cancels out the higher standard of hitting needed to be a designated hitter (2013 Yankee designated hitters excluded from said standard). Derek Jeter hit 14 runs above average in 2012. That total would have ranked third last year for designated hitters with at least 50% of their starts at designated hitter. Going over the past five seasons, his total would have ranked 22nd out of 110 player seasons.
There is some pretty strong sentiment to go after Stephen Drew or Jhonny Peralta as insurance for Jeter at shortstop and Alex Rodriguez at third base. The Yankees may be better off letting Jeter DH, giving most of the starts to Brendan Ryan, and then using the money saved on surrounding Ryan with bigger bats than Drew or Peralta would provide. This solution solves the designated hitter problem, limits the risk on a Jeter injury, improves the defense, and frees up more money for Cano, a big ticket outfielder, or a very good catcher. Jeter may want to play shortstop, but for the Yankees it is more important that he plays and avoids a repeat of 2013.
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