Derek Jeter, the Yankees' captain and shortstop, went down with an ankle injury in the 12th inning of Game 1 of last year’s American League Championship Series against Detroit. It seemed all hope was lost for New York—and it was. The Tigers swept the Yankees in four games, and soon after, Jeter underwent ankle surgery with the hope of being ready for Opening Day, according to Newsday.
On Thursday, the AP reported that Jeter had been cleared to start baseball activity in his recovery from surgery, and the captain himself told the New York Daily News that he expects to be ready for Opening Day.
“I feel good,” Jeter said in the interview. “I am right where I need to be (physically). I am right where I should be.”
For the Yankees’ sake, he had better be right.
Though Jeter will turn 39 in June, the Yankees’ season rides on Jeter’s recovery. CC Sabathia may headline the rotation, closer Mariano Rivera may be returning from a lost season and Robinson Cano may be in a contract push, but Jeter is the heart and soul of New York—not to mention an integral cog in the Yankees’ offense who adds diversity to an otherwise home-run-reliant offense.
Thanks to Jeter's most productive season since 2009, the Yankees finished with the best regular-season record in the American League and made it to the ALCS. Without him, New York fans might as well start looking at the 2014 season.
For better or worse, the Yankees tend to live and die by the long ball.
Last year, New York led Major League Baseball in home runs, knocking 245 out of the park. (The Orioles were No. 2, with 214). While Jeter adds some pop to the rest of the lineup (hitting 15 home runs last season), he serves more as a catalyst for the rest of the offensive firepower.
Last year, Jeter led the Yankees in batting average and hits and was No. 3 for the team in on-base percentage. Combined with the resigned Ichiro Suzuki, Jeter provides much-needed protection in the lineup for the slugging trio of Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira.
Additionally, Jeter needs to be in the lineup to compensate for some of the Yankees’ offseason losses. Outfielder Nick Swisher departed for the Cleveland Indians, utility man Eric Chavez left for the Arizona Diamondbacks and catcher Russell Martin left for the Pittsburgh Pirates. All three were major contributors to the Yankees’ offense, and they will be sorely missed.
Third baseman Alex Rodriguez is out until at least after the All-Star Game, according to Steven Marcus of Newsday. While Kevin Youkilis was brought in to add some pop in A-Rod’s absence, any additional loss of the Yankees offensive muscle—Jeter especially—would cost the team dearly in their postseason push.
Jeter is also one of the hardest players to replace on the Yankees’ depth chart.
Utility man Eduardo Nunez serves as Jeter’s backup at shortstop, and the difference between the two is noticeable. Not only does Jeter add more to the Yankees’ lineup—Nunez batted .292 with only one home run last year to Jeter’s .316—but Nunez has notable defensive deficiencies.
At shortstop, the utility man had four errors in 16 games in 2012, while Jeter had 10 in 135 games. Jeter’s fielding percentage last season stood at .980 while Nunez’ was .931. Simply put, the drop-off from Jeter to Nunez, both on the field and at the plate, is significant enough to seriously damage the Yankees’ title hopes.
Finally, there are the intangibles.
Perhaps no MLB player’s legacy is more intertwined with his team than Jeter’s with the Yankees. And for good reason.
Jeter is the face and voice of the franchise, and has remained a steady presence in New York for nearly two decades, all while other players, managers, team executives and owners have came and gone. His leadership role is integral to managing all the egos in the Yankees’ clubhouse, and New York needs his focus on the task at hand—winning its 28th World Series title—rather than on rehabbing from an injury.
While it was a small sample size, the Tigers’ four-game sweep of the Yankees in last season’s ALCS speaks volumes about how important Derek Jeter is to New York’s title hopes.
Jeter isn’t just an essential part of the Bronx Bombers’ dynamic offense, an irreplaceable member of the lineup, but also the heart and soul of the team. When he went down fielding the ball, the wind was knocked out of the Yankees, and the team never recovered.
In New York, a season without a World Series title is considered a failure. If Jeter encounters further complications with his ankle, the Yankees can kiss those title aspirations goodbye.