Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Impact Of A Jeter-less Infield

(Never a good expression when you're running to 1st.  Courtesy of Getty Images)

In terms of star power, name recognition, and MSM talking points, Derek Jeter's trip to the DL is a bummer for the Yankees and Yankee fans.  But realistically, it may not be all that bad of thing.  Jeter was hitting .260/.324/.324 before the calf strain, good for a .298 wOBA,  83 wRC+, and a ranking near the bottom of any statistical measurement system.  His range at short has also been suspect at best, and all indications were that the decline we saw at the end of the 2010 season was what the real Derek Jeter is and will be moving forward.  In the 2 games since his being placed on the DL, the Yankee lineup has been just as good, if not better, than when he was in it.  Now of course 2 games isn't enough to make good predictions about anything, but knowing what Jeter had been contributing and knowing there is another 2 weeks without him, I think it's worth taking a look at how things could change without him.

#1 Spot in the Batting Order- Brett Gardner won this job out of ST, but lost it almost immediately after a slow start.  To Jeter's credit, he has actually hit better as a leadoff guy, (.270/.336/.345 in 226 ABs as the #1 hitter, .344/.410/.456 in 90 ABs leading off an inning) but there is still room for improvement.  Jeter is averaging 3.85 pitches/plate appearance, 3rd lowest amongst Yankee regulars.  His replacements over the past 2 games, Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher, average 4.20 and 4.19 respectively.  They are working counts, setting up better hitting opportunities, and giving the guys behind them more chances to see the pitcher's stuff, all beneficial to offensive success.

Then there's the whole production thing.  Gardner went 3-4 with 3 R, 1 RBI, and 1 BB on Tuesday night from the 1-spot and Swish went 1-3 with 1 2B, 1 R, and 2 BB last night.  The nights of Jeter producing like that have been few and far between.  Both of these guys have been seeing and hitting the ball well lately, better than Jeter has at any point this year, which creates more opportunities for the offense as a whole to score.  Gardner sees more pitches, draws more walks, and has better speed than Jeter, and Swish sees more pitches, has more power, and also draws more walks.  Adding those factors into the offense over the next few weeks is an upgrade from where it was with Jeter in the leadoff spot and could provide more support for Joe changing things up and moving Jeter down in the order when he returns. 

Production/Performance from the SS Position- This will be the area affected the most by Jeter's absence, SS being his position and all, and just like the leadoff spot, early returns are looking good.  In the last 2 games, Eduardo Nunez has gone 4-8 with 2 R, 2 RBI, 1 HR, 1 BB, 0 K, 2 SB, and a hard hit ball almost every time up.  He's shown good patience and discipline at the plate, taken good swings, and hit the ball with more authority than Jeter has.  In the field he's still a bit of an adventure (see last night's botching of the in between ball in the 5th inning), but he does have a good arm, range at least as good as Jeter's, and he looked good turning the plays he did make last night.

Joe has all but said that Nunez is going to be the everyday SS while Jeter is out, so he's getting his first chance to show what he can do with regular playing time.  The Yankees have already held him out of some past potential trades, so they clearly think that Nunez has a chance to be a good player.  He doesn't have to go 2-4 with a homer and a stolen base every night, but if he can continue to show some pop in his bat while at the very least replicating Jeter's defense in the field, he can go a long way in proving he belongs and deserves more playing time regardless of Jeter's health situation.

The Rest- Realistically, the argument can be made that the effects of Jeter's injury can be felt all the way from the top of the organization to the bottom levels.  He's been the mainstay at short since '96 and only recently has the team begun to address how they are going to handle the future of that position without him.  Now that Jeter is on the DL and firmly entrenched in the downside of his career, it gives the organization a chance to evaluate and re-evaluate all of their internal options.

With Nunez now the everyday SS, Ramiro Pena has been recalled to serve as the utility IF on the bench.  And don't look now, but it looks like the kid has learned how to hit a little bit.  He crushed a home run into right field last night and has been solid with the stick all year in Triple-A, putting up a .269/.341/.404 tripleslash and a .332 wOBA.  If he can continue to show that he's improved, he gives the Yankees reason to consider keeping him around in the future, which is an opportunity that he wouldn't have gotten with Jeter and Nunez planted in front of him on the depth chart.

And beyond Pena, now the Doug Berniers, Jose Pirelas, Walt Ibarras, and Jose MojicasCito Culver.  He's young, he's raw, and he doesn't start his season with short-season Staten Island until later this week, but now his status becomes even more important.  If he shows significant development, maybe he gets moved up through the system faster as the eventual heir to Jeter's throne.  Bare minimum, the Yankees get a better idea of whether or not they have the tools internally to replace Jeter or if they need to start thinking about the trade/FA market as an option in the years to come.

It sucks that Jeter is hurt and it sucks that his march towards 3,000 hits has to be delayed.  But there are still plenty of positives to be had from his 15 days off.  The lineup gets a potential boost, the Yankees get their first good look at what kind of everyday pro Eduardo Nunez can be, and the current crop of SS prospects get the chance to show what they can do and be better evaluated so that the Yankees can start formulating a plan to replace Jeter at short when that time comes.  And on top of all of that, Jeter gets the time he needs to rest and rehab the injury.  Who knows?  Maybe the break can bring a little life back to his bat.

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