Master Procrastinator

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Think Twice Before Moving Derek Jeter

Posted by Andrew Zercie on April 2, 2009

Many believe the New York Yankees have a problem on their hands in regards to Derek Jeter. Many believe he is regressing at the plate and in the field. His legendary 10 year, $189M contract expires at the end of the 2010 season. It is logical to speculate about Jeter’s future with the franchise. But there is no logical reason to move Derek Jeter from shortstop.

One of the first things that others cite when writing about shifting Derek Jeter to the outfield, another position on the infield, or just to DH, is his diminishing range at shortstop. The second item that is brought up is Jeter’s production at the plate. The third is his age.

First of all Derek Jeter has never been considered an elite defensive player. Oh sure, he’s won three Gold Gloves, and he’s made some exciting plays in the postseason that have taken on a folklore quality. However, several different statistical measurements peg Jeter as, at best, in the bottom third of defensive shortstops, and always have.

Whatever the Yankees are getting from Jeter defensively is not going to improve, more than likely. If he were to stay there for the 2010 season and beyond, Jeter would still rate among the worst defensive players at the position. Can one regress from being the worst to being…more than the worst?

Offensively, Jeter was an MVP candidate in 2006, and the most productive shortstop in the American League in 2007. In 2008, Cleveland’s Jhonny Peralta had better power numbers, but Jeter hit for a better average and got on base more often. However one measures offense, Jeter was again a productive player relative to the league average at his position last season, despite dealing with nagging injuries virtually all year long.

As he turns 35, Jeter is being moved to the leadoff spot in the Yankees’ lineup this year. Their expectations of him are simple: get on base. This is an area Jeter still excels at, despite his “advancing age,” and he is likely to be a productive leadoff hitter for 2009 and beyond. It is unlikely he will hit .300 forever, but it is clear that offensive play remains a strength for him, relative to his position.

And that’s the key in all of this. If Derek Jeter were shifted to, say leftfield, he would not be a league-average player on offense relative to his position. He would be a singles hitter playing a position that is usually reserved for a power hitter, and the only way the Yankees could replace that power elsewhere, given their long-term commitments at 1B and 3B, would be to somehow acquire a power hitting shortstop.

It is infinitely easier to find a corner outfielder who can mash than it is to find a shortstop that can. Leaving Jeter at SS may be problematic for team defense, but asking him to move to LF and replacing him with a defensive whiz at SS who does not produce league-average numbers for his position would weaken the Yankees on offense and could cause problems with their outfield defense.

The press corps that follows the Yankees during spring training has been wowed by the defensive play of Ramiro Pena, a minor league shortstop in the Yankees organization. Whatever Pena provides with the glove, his bat leaves a lot to be desired.

Ramiro Pena is a career .258 hitter in the minors with a career .318 OBP. He turns 23 this year and has yet to play above Double A. If Pena, or a player of his ilk, is brought in to play SS and Jeter is pushed to the outfield, it could spell disaster for the Yankees on offense.

I have read many “experts” write at length about Jeter’s ability to track fly balls and, because of that, a transition to the outfield would be seamless, and there is no question Jeter is strong at handling fly balls on the infield and in foul territory. But tracking fly balls is only one part of playing an outfield position.

How would Jeter’s arm strength hold up in the outfield? How would Jeter do at tracking sinking line-drives, or balls in the gaps? I can’t imagine Jeter splaying his body out, a la Jim Edmonds, in pursuit of a sinking liner. He’s never done it before. How would his “aging” body handle that?

The Yankees’ best move would be to keep Jeter at SS for the remainder of his existing contract, at least. He will be 36 when his current deal expires, and close to reaching the 3,000 hit plateau. Having Jeter achieve that milestone while wearing the Pinstripes will be huge for both the franchise and the player; the Yankees should make every effort to bring him back.

And at that point, assuming Jeter returns for the 2011 season, he should either be the SS or DH, and nothing else. Asking him to move to the outfield at 37 is a near-impossible task. Mark Teixeira has 1B covered, and Alex Rodriguez has 3B. Jorge Posada will likely need to split time between C and DH.

While the concerns about Jeter’s skills declining in all areas are valid, he didn’t become a future Hall of Famer by accident. I can count on one hand the guys I’d want over him at SS right now: they’re all in the National League, and acquiring any of them would require a trade. That’s assuming any of those teams would be willing to deal their starting shortstop.

Warts and all, Derek Jeter is the Yankees shortstop. It would be a mistake to move him to another position.


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