(How's that ankle going to respond the first time Jeter has to make a similar play to his left next year? Courtesy of Getty Images)
The immediate impact of Derek Jeter’s ankle injury was major and painfully obvious to anybody who watched the ALCS. Without him in the lineup or on the field, the Yankees managed to score just 2 runs in the final 3 games while giving up more than that and committing 3 official defensive errors, 5 if you want to be a stickler like me and give Chavez and Teix Es for their stay-back botches in Game 4. Even deeper than the on-field results, the entire attitude and morale of the team seemed to drop without the presence of The Captain. Say what you want about his robotic repetition of nothing comments to the media, but the tired, lifeless nature of the Yankees’ play in the final 3 games should stand as an example of just what kind of behind-the-scenes leader Jeter is in the clubhouse and how important he still is to the Yankees’ success. Losing Jeter for this year’s ALCS was a big enough blow to the Yankees, but the impact this injury has on next season could be even greater.
The first, and most obvious, issue is the expected recovery time for this injury and how that will affect Jeter’s ability to be ready for Opening Day 2013. The reports of 4-5 months recovery time have been consistent across the board since the surgery option was first reported. Jeter had the surgery last Saturday, and 4-5 months from last Saturday puts him back on the field sometime between late February and late March. Assuming the bulk of that time will be spent strengthening the ankle and foot and testing it out to make sure Jeter can run, plant, and cut as needed, it’s safe to say Jeter will not get a full baseball-related offseason workout in.
If he is able to resume full baseball activities in late February, there’s a good chance he can get enough work in during Spring Training to be prepared for the start of the 2013 season. But for every day after that 4-month side of the rehab schedule, that’s less time Jeter has to get back into his full baseball routine, a routine that he's surely mastered after going through 17 offseasons, and sending him back out there as a 38-year-old shortstop coming off major surgery without that full preparation routine would be a risky move.
Which brings us to concern number 2, that being what kind of production and performance should we expect from Jeter next season coming off this surgery? In the last 2 seasons, Jeter’s gone from looking like he was on his way out as an effective everyday player to having one of the best seasons of his career and one of the best seasons in baseball history for a shortstop his age. It would have been unreasonable to expect Jeter to replicate his .316/.362/.429, .347 wOBA line from 2012 in 2013 even if he was completely healthy. To expect him to do it coming off ankle surgery, a severely modified offseason training program, and a possibly accelerated ST schedule would be ludicrous. Suddenly all the questions about Jeter's deteriorating skill set come right back to the forefront for 2013, especially the ones about his range at short.
Where things really get tricky is when the focus of this injury impact expands from just Jeter to the rest of the roster. Anticipating that Jeter is going to start the 2013 season on some kind of reduced playing time schedule, the Yankees are once again going to find themselves in a position of serious roster inflexibility. Jeter needing DH days or full days off early means more Eduardo Nunez at shortstop, a scenario that, no matter how you slice it, is a downgrade. It also means fewer opportunities to rest or play the matchup game with Alex Rodriguez, something that is going to become a bigger part of the Yankees' day-to-day lineup structuring now that the Pandora's Box of using A-Rod as a platoon player has been opened. The Yankees will now be faced with 2 older right-handed hitters whose playing time will need to be closely monitored, a lefty DH to platoon them with, and because the team is reportedly set on using Nunez only as a shortstop, another lefty platoon third baseman to pair up with Rodriguez.
If Jeter is late starting the season, or ineffective as a result of his altered offseason program, the Yankees will also have some serious work to do at the top of their batting order. Ichiro will likely not be back next season, at least he shouldn't be, and there isn't a clear-cut ideal option in house to replace Jeter at the top of the order unless you're a big believer in Brett Gardner. With Swish almost assuredly also on his way out and Curtis Granderson turning into a strikeout machine, the first 2 spots in the batting order are suddenly up in the air without Jeter.
It's still way too early to be ringing the panic alarm on any of these hypotheticals scenarios, but this is an issue that the Yankees will have to address. Derek Jeter is lucky to have made it through his career without any really serious injuries, and lucky that this one occurred essentially during the offseason to allow him time to recover and the Yankees' time to formulate contingency plans. As frightening as it was watching him go down in pain and not get up when the ankle first broke, the possibilities of what could happen in 2013 as a result are even scarier.