The Yankees, their fans, and even Derek Jeter himself have known that his days as the team's starting shortstop were numbered. That discussion was surely had with Jeter behind closed doors during his last contract negotiation and is more than likely the reason the final year of his deal became an optional one. That timeline got sped up some when Jeter suffered his season-ending ankle injury last October and now appears to be speeding up again after last week's announcement that Jeter had re-injured his ankle, suffering a crack in the area of the original break that will put him on the shelf until at least the All-Star break. That revelation fell into the "disappointing but not surprising" category for many of us who questioned Jeter's progress after the initial setback and cortisone shot, and now we, like the Yankees, have to figure out the best way to move forward without The Captain's familiar #2 anywhere on the lineup card.
The early approach of just riding it out until Jeter came back now gets modified to something a little more permanent. With Jeter out of the picture, Eduardo Nunez finds himself in the middle of a 3-4 month audition for the role of Jeter's replacement. It's a position he's been in before, most recently in 2011 when he subbed for an injured Jeter, but now it comes with the potential for more than just a job as Jeter's placeholder. The early start Nunez has gotten off to has been less than encouraging (.175/.271/.200 in 50 PA) and fellow replacement-level IF Jayson Nix hasn't been much better (.212/.250/.303 in 36 PA) in his handful of games at short. The Yankees have struggled to find a consistent top-of-the-lineup offensive presence without Jeter and neither Nunez nor Nix appear capable of handling that responsibility.
Then there's the matter of defense. Jeter hasn't been a good defensive shortstop for years, regardless of what the Gold Glove Award voters say, and the broken ankle was most likely going to result in the disappearance of whatever range he had left. One thing Jeter could be counted on to do, however, was make the routine play, and it's that loss of defensive confidence at short that will stand out the most over these next three months. We've already seen Nix boot a simple groundball at shortstop this year, and yesterday Nunez made his second error of the season throwing a ball away trying to turn two. He had a runner bearing down on him, and it would be unfair to say it was an "easy" play to make, but it's the type of play where Jeter can be trusted to either make the throw and get the out or be smart enough to eat the ball and not give the opponent free bases. The once sure nature of a 4-6 or 6-4 turn of a double play now becomes a bit more of an adventure than we're used to.
Regardless of what type of player he still is after the ankle surgery, the loss of Derek Jeter for an extended period of time is a blow to the Yankees. They could use his steadying presence in the field and they could use his experience at the top of the batting order. Hell, they could use his bat anywhere in the lineup against left-handed pitching, as that has now shown itself to be the unquestioned biggest offensive weakness of this current group. The Yankee roster and organization is void of any reliable backup/replacement option for Jeter, and there's little to nothing to be had on the trade market this early in the season. As they've already done through these first 17 games, the Yankees will have to figure out a way to get by. As they've very rarely had to do over these past 17 years, they'll now also have to consider what it will be like when Jeter is gone for good.
(Photo courtesy of Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News)