It’s way too early to call anything for sure, but it sure looks like the Yankees are done addressing the shortstop position for 2014. They gave Derek Jeter a new contract, in all likelihood his final one, so he can try to go out on his terms as the starter and they hedged their bets by re-signing Brendan Ryan to a reported 1-year/$2 million deal as the backup. With as many other roster holes as they have to fill and the front office sticking to its “we’re planning to have A-Rod around next year” story, it seems highly unlikely that they will go out and drop another $10-15 million on a Stephen Drew or a Jhonny Peralta as a third option. Realistically we can assume the Yankees will roll with The Captain and B-Ry (still working on Ryan’s nickname) at short and will split the bulk, if not all, of the playing time there between the 2.
Now the question becomes just how that playing time is going to be split up. Nobody needs to be reminded of Jeter’s pride and competitive streak. The number one reason he’s coming back next year is to prove to everybody that he can defy the odds and be a good starting shortstop at age 40. It’s a worthy goal and kudos to him for having it, but it’s not one the Yankees appear to be fully on board with. If they were, they wouldn’t have re-signed Ryan so quickly and wouldn’t still be in on Drew and Peralta. They’re planning for the worst more than hoping for the best, and so why not look ahead and try to project what that plan might entail.
The first question is how many games will Jeter even play next season? Jeter himself said his ankle has recovered to the point that he can start working out again and he’s been doing strength and conditioning exercises, the ones he couldn’t do last offseason, for a few weeks already. It’s hard to imagine the ankle or his legs in general holding up over a 162-game schedule at his age though, and the early projections that I’ve seen have him pegged for somewhere between 100 and 115 games played. For the sake of even numbers, I’ll be optimistic and round that up to 120. Figure you can wipe out 15 games for time on the DL, 10 games where he’s out of the lineup dealing with some aches and pains, 10 games where he’s just getting a full day of rest, and 7 games just to round things off.
Out of those 120 games, I don’t think there’s any way Jeter plays more than 100 at shortstop. Even if his ankle is 100% healthy, his range at this point in his career is comically bad. It’s a strategic disadvantage to have him in the field regularly, especially with the defensively excellent Ryan behind him, and it’s to the Yankees’ benefit to manage him with care and keep him in the lineup as much as possible. I’d say if Jeter spends two-thirds of his time at shortstop and the other third at DH, that plus the other 40 games off should be enough to get him through the season healthy and as productive as he can be. That’s 80 games at short and 40 at DH, not a bad projection when you consider that he’ll almost always be the DH against lefties and will get regular turns there against righties when the team is in the midst of an 8-10 consecutive games stretch.
That leaves a little more than half the season for Ryan to play shortstop and that’s plenty of time for his defense to shine through. If he’s worth the average of his last 2 seasons defensively, that’s 16 runs saved (19 if you average the last 5) and there’s a lot of value in that regardless of how much or how little he hits. The Yankees must see something in his swing that makes them think they can get a little more out of him. Even if that little more is only enough to bring him up to .210/.270/.300, that plus his defensive value should be enough to make him a 1.0-1.5 fWAR player. The Yankees didn’t have any of those on their bench last year and only had 5 regulars who had WAR values at or above that level. If Ryan gets a little BIP luck here and there that value can only go up, and if Jeter can still hit like a close approximation of the Jeter we know and love that’s got to be worth another 1+ WAR as well.
Yes, this rough projection assumes that neither Jeter nor Ryan will suffer any major injuries next season and there’s always a non-zero chance of that happening. There is also the possibility of Ryan getting banged up and needing a few days off at some point and those games aren’t accounted for here, but the Yankees will still have Eduardo Nunez around. A few spot starts for him at short are the type of “Eduardo Nunez at short” games you can live with, as long as it’s only a few games.
A 50/50 split at shortstop, overly simplistic as it may seem, might be the best way for the Yankees to get the most out of their shortstop tandem. It’s enough time for Jeter’s bat and Ryan’s glove to make a positive impact and it would give Jeter the chance to maximize his offensive output through the extra time at DH. If he and Ryan combine for 3 WAR at the shortstop position, that’ll be light years better than what the Yanks got in 2013.
(Photo courtesy of Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News)