The Texas Rangers have a really good problem. Jurickson Profar is a mega-prospect, who hits and fields like a future star shortstop. At 19 years old, he has hit .278/.361/.456 in 117 games. The Rangers are considering promoting Profar in September, and using him through the postseason. They believe he is major league ready.
The problem is that the Rangers already have one of the better shortstops in the game. Elvis Andrus, still just 23 years old, has been worth an average of 3.5 wins per season since he entered the major leagues. He is a +7 UZR/150 defender at short, and is having his best season at the plate in 2012, with a wRC+ of 105. He’s unique in today’s young hitter class because he has not yet signed a contract extension. Andrus is set to become a free agent in 2015, when he will be 26 years old.
I’ve believed for a long time that the Yankees should make Elvis Andrus their long term plan at shortstop. He is the only decent player at the position set to become a free agent any time soon. The Yankees have no better options in their farm system. Derek Jeter is 38 years old. If the Rangers trade Andrus before he becomes a free agent, the team that acquires him is very likely to aggressively court him for an extension. The Yankees may not be able to afford to wait for two more seasons.
The obvious road block to such a trade is Derek Jeter. He has been doing his best Mike Trout impression in August, and to a 119 OPS+ – higher than his career average, at the age of 38. Jeter’s performance at the plate is ridiculously impressive no matter how you slice it, but his defense is another story. Despite being +18.5 runs at the plate and on the bases, his fWAR stands at just +2.8 on the season. This is because Jeter is averaging a -18 UZR/150 right now, undercutting the advantage the Yankees get by having a shortstop bat so well.
If Derek Jeter were to move to, say, right field, and maintain his same batting line while playing average defense, he would not likely be worth 18 runs less versus an alternative right fielder. The pending departure of Nick Swisher opens up an easy spot for him.
Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle – two important analogues for Jeter’s career – moved positions when they got older. They did it for the good of the team, and to keep having opportunities to hit. Jeter’s bat is still an asset, but his glove this season has been worse than ever. Elvis Andrus would represent an important passing-of-the-torch moment for the Yankees, and they should not let a 38 year-old playing so improbably well hold that moment back for them. Derek Jeter is a much better bet to hit like his 2010-2011 self than his 2012 self going forward.
Ideally, the Rangers would wait one season before trading Andrus, if that is what they plan to do. One alternative scenario is that the Rangers just hold on to Andrus in 2013 and 2014 before letting him go as a free agent. Profar is still only 19 years old, and there’s no reason to immediately bet the farm on him. He would have to be a phenomenally good rookie just to equal what Andrus has been doing this year and last. A post-2013 trade would give Derek Jeter one more year at shortstop, bring the asking price down for Andrus, and hopefully give the Yankee farm system some time to produce assets. A post-2014 free agency would set the Yankees up as bidders on the open market, a position which they tend to win out in.
What assets would you trade for Andrus? The Rangers are surely going to ask for MLB-ready pieces to fill in their roster. They don’t have a lot of weaknesses this year, but the departure of Josh Hamilton could certainly open up a hole. I think Brett Gardner is an interesting piece to build a package around, as a player under team control for a season longer than Elvis Andrus. They are comparable players in many ways, but each would satisfy the other team’s needs. I’d be willing to throw in a top prospect as well, although I’d keep Mason Williams off the table as long as Gardner is in the deal. Tyler Austin or Gary Sanchez on the other hand, maybe?
I know we’re all in awe of Derek Jeter’s historic age-38 season. I’m starting to have more confidence that he can be a useful player into his 40s. But when evidence suggests that the bottom is starting to fall out of his (already deep) hole at an important defensive position, the Yankees need to start thinking about moving him, regardless of his offensive performance. Keeping him at shortstop when the alternative is Eduardo Nunez is one thing, but its a completely different thing when we start talking about the availability of elite young talent.