Uncertain to the core

Of all the uncertainties that face the New York Yankees heading into the post season, concern about the “core” should probably come to the top of the list. The last we saw Derek Jeter, the captain and Yankee stalwart since 1996, he was flat on the infield after suffering what we later learned was a fracture to his ankle. This past Saturday, he had surgery on the ankle and is expected to be ready to go by Spring Training. The last we saw Mariano Rivera, the 42 year old designee as the greatest closer that ever lived was being carted off the field with a torn up knee and a blood clot later complicated his injury. Andy Pettitte was the only one of the old guard that ended the season on his feet, but that was after getting drilled in the leg and suffering a fracture of his own that would take two months to heal. You know Jeter will be back and Rivera said he would be back. Andy Pettitte gave himself a month to decide to come back for another season. These three last links to the beginning of this great Yankee era have never finished a season with more doubts about what the future holds.

Jeter just finished a season no one ever expected. The defensive numbers were poor according to all the newfangled data sets. But offensively? Did anyone expect that kind of season from the 38 year old shortstop? As unexpected as his season was, the biggest surprise was that he played 159 of the 162 games. But he played at least the last month on one leg and that leg simply gave out on him in the ALCS.

While Jeter has already proved that we should never put limits on what he can do, logic and sanity have to indicate that even if he finished totally healthy, a repeat of this season seems unlikely. But he did not finish healthy. Will this ankle injury limit his mobility even further? Will it slow him down on the bases? Will it lead to less playing time? We won’t know until he shows up in the Spring. The only questions from season to season the past few years is how Jeter will respond to age. But now the age and his injury will be a dual concern heading into 2013.

At the age of 42, Mariano Rivera was still putting up remarkable numbers when he went down shagging balls during batting practice. After blowing his first save chance of the season, he was perfect thereafter and his 2.15 ERA, 0.960 WHIP and a four to one strikeout to walk ratio seemed like the same old Mo. But we’ve already wondered when the old closer would finally have age catch up with him. Now that concern is combined with his knee injury. One of the keys to Rivera’s great success has been his stride, one of the longest in baseball. Will he be able to repeat that famous delivery and stride with his usual authority?

At least the previous two have indicated they want to come back another season. The one member of the “core” who seemed to finish the season showing the world that he could still do great things is not sure he wants to play again in 2013. Of course, we are talking about Andy Pettitte.

Like Jeter, few of us could have been predicted that Andy Pettitte would pitch just as well as 2010 after taking a season off and aging into a 40 year old. In his twelve starts, his WHIP of 1.142 was better than 2010 and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings showed that he still had the ability to put away major league hitters. And while he was not able to pick up his 2oth post season win, he still pitched two highly reliable and solid big time performances.

There seems little doubt that Pettitte would be a benefit to the Yankees next season based on what he did this season. But the two concerns there are first, whether he wants to do it again, and second, if he can stay healthy if he does decide to give it another go.

And how will the Yankees hedge their bets in all of this? Jeter is the only one of the three that has a contract for 2013. The Yankees would be silly to give Rivera another offer for $15 million with so much uncertainty surrounding his return. That puts the team in a bind because Rivera has shown that he is a proud man when it comes to how he is paid and how the team perceives his value. Pettitte would probably be a lot less expensive, though it seems the value proposition shifted a bit between the two.

If Mariano Rivera can no longer be the same heroic closer of the past, the Yankees are still in fairly good shape with Joba Chamberlain back at full strength and David Robertson highly capable and Mark Montgomery in the wings. Everyone would love to see one more classic season from the great closer. But it is not necessarily a deal breaker for the Yankees. So what will they do?

There is never too much starting pitching as the past two seasons have shown. And Pettitte did not make great demands to come back this season. The Yankees could give him a fairly inexpensive deal with incentives.

Oddly enough, that brings us back to the one guy who is signed, Derek Jeter. The Yankees now have two infielders on the left side with giant question marks. Eric Chavez was a nice insurance policy this season for A-Rod. It is tough to pull those kinds of rabbits out of the hat year after year. Eduardo Nunez showed some life and reliability in the playoffs and could be Jeter’s insurance policy. But will Girardi be comfortable with Nunez, a guy he has not trusted in the past?

The “core” has been with us for so long that it was a huge kick in the gut when Jeter went out of the ALCS. A Yankee playoff team without Jeter seemed unthinkable. And, of course, the lack of fight in the Yankees the rest of that series will be linked to Jeter’s abrupt exit (more myth making, eh?). This off season, more than any in recent memory, seems like a crossroad for what the team has known for seventeen seasons. The old guys can’t play forever. Yet, despite the age and the creaks and cracks in their games, the team still seems better off with them than without.

About William Tasker

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

3 thoughts on “Uncertain to the core

  1. Chavez has been a very nice insurance policy especially this past season when he remained relatively healthy, The comment above about Girardi not trusting Nunez in the past, can anyone blame Girardi. Nunez's defense has been terrible year in and year out when Girardi has given him an opportunity. I've mentioned on these blogs before I would like to see the Yankees sign Jeff Keppinger of the Rays who is a F/A. He would give the Yankees the flexibility to keep Nunez in the minors honing his defensive skills and allow the Yankees not to have to cross their fingers and hope that Chavez can stay healthy. And Keppinger can play 2nd, SS and 3rd.