This off-season will represent the first time since 1995 that the Yankees will be looking for a full-time solution at shortstop. That may even be selling the transition for Derek Jeter to whomever a bit short, too, as Tony Fernandez was signed to be the team's everyday shortstop in December of 1994, and he was pretty freaking good - at that time, he was still a strong defender with a league-average bat, which most teams would kill for at shortstop nowadays. Of course, that goes to show just how long it has been since the Yankees were faced with this sort of dilemma. To add a bit more context, in 1995 (the last of pre-Jeterian days):
- Alex Rodriguez, Ruben Rivera, Chipper Jones, Jeter, and Brian Hunter were rated as the top-five prospects in baseball by Baseball America. Yes - that Ruben Rivera.
- A gallon of gas in the United States was, on average, $1.09.
- Windows 95 was released.
- Coolio's Gangsta's Paradise was Billboard's top single of the year.
- A movie starring a talking pig was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
It does feel as if I stumbled into the cliche trap that I had been avoiding all season here, and yet I simply could not help myself - it has been a long, long time since the Yankees were in this position. I was just shy of 9 when Jeter made his Major League debut, and a bit more than nineteen years later the position has been reduced to conjecture and worrying. But I digress.
As newcomer Scott discussed on Monday, Stephen Drew may well be the most realistic, if not best solution to play shortstop next season. Yes, he did not hit a lick last season. And, yes, there is at least one name on the market that is far more tempting. However, Drew remains a safe bet to provide solid defense at shortstop, and, despite his career long inconsistencies on offense, 2014 remains incredibly out of character for the career .256/.322/.425 (93 wRC+) hitter.
If Drew were to hit to his career norms and continue his strong play at short, he would be, at worst, a middle of the pack shortstop. His 93 wRC+ would have ranked 14th among 27 shortstops with 400+ PA this season, which is right in-line with Jordy Mercer and fellow free agent Jed Lowrie, who finished with 2.0 and 1.9 fWAR, respectively. Drew is a better defender than both, so a return to form offensively could yield at least 2.0 fWAR - a tremendous upgrade over where the Yankees have been the last couple of years, to be polite. And that does not feel overly ambitious.
The internal options at shortstop are essentially non-existent. Ali Castillo and Carmen Angelini saw the majority of time at shortstop for the Yankees Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, respectively, and both are non-prospects. Jose Pirela could find his way into this discussion, as well, but shortstop is his weakest position by a fairly wide margin. And Cito Culver's defense may be ready, but to call him a disaster offensively may be too kind. Simply put, the Yankees farm is all but guaranteed to contribute little more than cannon fodder at shortstop in 2015.
That leaves us with Brendan Ryan, a career 69 wRC+ hitter with declining defensive skills. Any offense that Ryan produces used to be gravy, as he was among the very best defenders in Major League Baseball for a time. Without that defense, however, he struggles to be replacement-level. And both the eye test and defensive metrics see Ryan as having slipped these last two years, from 'great' to somewhere between 'average' and 'good.' Some of that may be a sample size error, a lack of regular playing time, some combination of both, or something else entirely - yet it is a disconcerting trend for a nearly 33-year-old that has never been able to muster much with the bat. Ryan used to be the player that you could bury in the bottom of a good lineup and count on his defense to make up that disadvantage; now, he may be little more than a defensive replacement, or an up-and-down guy.
With J.J. Hardy opting to remain in Baltimore through at least 2017, the free agent pool has been reduced to the aforementioned Messrs Drew and Lowrie, Hanley Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, and a few players in the Brendan Ryan class of shortstop. Lowrie is a shaky defender with a lengthy injury history and inconsistent offense, Ramirez is similarly injury prone and even worse defensively, and Cabrera has long been a second baseman masquerading as a shortstop (with back-to-back 'meh' offensive years, to boot). All three represent sizable upgrades for the Yankees, so long as they maintain a modicum of health. However, I am uncertain that the juice would be worth the squeeze as all will likely be much more expensive than Drew, despite all coming with questions of their own. Can Lowrie stay healthy and productive? Can Ramirez stay healthy and play a competent shortstop? Can Cabrera rebound and not embarrass himself at short? All three have a higher baseline than Drew's 2014, to be sure - but I don't think any are terribly safe. Particularly when you factor in the likelihood of Ramirez likely costing a draft pick.
Cabrera, for what it's worth, may be an intriguing second base option. He is basically a scratch defender at the keystone, with a good bat for the position - and that would also free up Martin Prado to do the Ben Zobrist thing. This may be a discussion for another place and time, but it is intriguing nevertheless.
In the end, shortstop will probably be a bit scary in 2015. It is not difficult to talk myself into Drew, but I am not confident about anything aside from his defense. And as much as I have to talk myself out of Hanley Ramirez, I do feel that he would eventually be a disaster of Teixeira-n and Rodriguez-ian proportions. So as uncertainty ruled the day when Jeter took his last steps off the field, so too shall it be for most of the off-season - and I do not see a genuinely satisfying solution in the cards. At least not this off-season.
So, for now, here's hoping Drew will return on a one-year pillow contract. Without a concretely better course, it seems best to make this future Cashman's problem.