As much as everybody likes to talk about the Yankees' failures when it comes to developing young pitching, a conversation that's not as failure-filled as some people like to think, there's another area on the roster where they haven't exactly been churning out winners recently and that's at shortstop. They've had the benefit of Derek Jeter being a fixture at the position for the last 17 years, but Jeter's time is winding down and the Yankees are nowhere closer to finding his replacement than they were when talks of Jeter retiring first started.
And it's not like this is a new topic that just came up in the last few months after Jeter's ankle surgery. There have been on and off references to Jeter's retirement/replacement since about 2008, the first year his offensive production started to decline from its usual standards. That talk was hushed a bit by Jeter's bounce back 2009, and then halted again last season after another bounce back year, but now it bears bringing up one more time. Jeter will enter this season at age 38, turning 39 in June, coming off ankle surgery that has significantly delayed his usual offseason routine and will almost assuredly hinder his production and ability to play every day for at least the first month of the season. He's got a player option for 2014 that he'll pick up as long as he can still swing a bat, and while his plans after his contract runs out are unknown right now, it would seem like the perfect time to retire at age 40.
But where do the Yankees go from there? As enticing as it may seem to not have to endure a hobbled, watered down Jeter struggling to field his position laterally, a suitable everyday replacement for him is nowhere in sight. The Yankees aren't going to work the free agent market next offseason and add payroll for Jeter's replacement while he's still under contract, there's no guarantee that prime potential free agents like Elvis Andrus and Asdrubal Cabrera are still going to be available when the 2014-2015 offseason rolls around, and the in-house cupboard is incredibly bare.
If the regular season started today, New York's starting SS would be Eduardo Nunez, the same Eduardo Nunez who we've all cursed for botching routine plays, the same Eduardo Nunez who's been mentioned as Jeter's replacement for the last three years, and the same Eduardo Nunez who continues to look like nothing more than a quasi-useful bench player on his best day. The fact that Nunez hasn't started to put the pieces together yet doesn't project well for him moving forward, and the window of opportunity to turn him into a capable everyday shortstop may have already closed. After him it's Jayson Nix, a serviceable replacement-level depth piece but nothing more and nothing less. I really don't see the Yankees holding onto Nix for the next two seasons just to plug him into that spot as a 33-year-old career bench player.
Once you drill down to the lower levels of the Minor League system, it really starts to become clear how little there is to work with. Addison Maruszak should be the starting SS for Double-A Trenton again this season. He was a 17th-round draft pick in 2008, and despite a solid season in 2012 he's just organizational depth at this point. At 26 years old, if he was going to turn into something resembling a useful Major League prospect it would have happened by now. A 1st-round pick was spent on Cito Culver in 2010 and to date his best offensive output is still the .323 wOBA he posted in the GCL. He can probably handle the position defensively, but his offensive game is nowhere near Major League ready, let alone Double-A ready.
Claudio Custodio could turn into something, but he's already 22 and still hasn't played in a full-season league, and the same goes for 2012 2nd-round pick Austin Aune. He's got all the tools at age 19 and looked pretty good in the GCL last year (yay 11.7% BB rate!), but he needs a lot of work and is no guarantee to stick at short long term. He certainly won't be ready to take over as an everyday Major League shortstop in 2015. And let's not forget about the Ramiros Pena and Carmens Angelini of the world either. Last time I checked, those guys aren't scheduled to have their numbers put out in Monument Park anytime soon.
So where do the Yankees turn next? Who's going to take over when Jeter isn't there to hold down that position anymore? It's a question that doesn't need to be answered immediately, but it's one that's been on the radar for a few years now and so far the Yankees' efforts to answer it have come up empty. They're no closer to finding a suitable replacement for Jeter than they were when considering a replacement for Jeter first became a serious talking point. If we're going to criticize the Yankee organization for what they have or haven't done to develop starting pitching, it only seems fair to do the same with respect to developing another shortstop.
(Photo courtesy of Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News)