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Will Derek Jeter's Return Spark the Yankees' Suddenly Crippled Offense?

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Will Derek Jeter's Return Spark the Yankees' Suddenly Crippled Offense?
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The New York Yankees lost again in Oakland on Thursday afternoon.

Well, technically, they lost in the evening. The game started in the afternoon, but ended up being an 18-inning marathon that the eternally pesky A's won 3-2 when Nate Freiman got just enough of a Mariano Rivera cutter for a walk-off single.

Whatever it was, you can tell just by looking at that score that it was another rough day for the Yankees' offense. They had their chances, but they left 14 runners on base and the only hit they got with a runner in scoring position was Robinson Cano's two-run homer in the first inning.

The phrase "par for the course" comes to mind. After a strong April, the Yankees' offense has been pretty close to Miami Marlins bad.

Throughout the course of Thursday's game, I'm guessing at least a few downtrodden Yankees fans put their heads in their hands and moaned, "Where oh where is Derek Jeter when you need him?"

And now for the good news: Jeter's coming, and he can only help.

The Yankees tweeted this on Thursday:

Now, don't get too excited.

Jeter has already suffered one setback in his quest to return from the ankle fracture he suffered in Game 1 of last year's ALCS. Another setback should not be ruled out at his age, with the chief danger being running the bases. As B/R's Will Carroll noted earlier this week, that's what caused Jeter's first setback.

But heck, let's be optimistic here and assume that this means Jeter could make his return shortly after the All-Star break, which is just about a month from now. What then?

Short version: He'll be a needed upgrade.

Jeter will be returning to his usual shortstop post, and that's a position where the Yankees could use some offense. According to Baseball-Reference.com, their shortstops had a mere .565 OPS heading into Thursday's game against the A's. Jason Nix and Reid Brignac didn't help that by going a combined 1-for-6 with no walks.

It doesn't take much to do better than a .565 OPS. Which is good, because it's beyond unfair to expect a vintage version of Jeter when he finally returns.

Per FanGraphs, the rest-of-season Steamer projections for Jeter call for a slash line of .288/.344/.389. That's a .733 OPS, which would put him in between where he was in 2010 and 2011, when he was at best an average offensive shortstop.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The look of a man who thinks he can still hit .300.

Jeter's Steamer projection also calls for a 98 wRC+, a FanGraphs stat that quantifies a player's offensive value in relation to the league average. The league average is 100, so Jeter would be roughly a league-average player if he were to live up to his projections.

Nobody's going to be disappointed if Jeter is just an average player. People are going to accept that, hey, it is what it is and it's totally excusable given the age and the long layoff. One would hope, anyway.

But that's not the chief concern. The chief concern involves Joe Girardi sabotaging his lineup by putting Jeter where he doesn't belong. He's a top-of-the-order guy, and that just so happens to be an area where the Yankees' offense is the most solid.

Brett Gardner has done a fine job as the club's everyday leadoff guy with a .348 OBP (that's pre-Thursday) and a .795 OPS. He's largely responsible for the fact that Yankees leadoff men have combined for an .814 OPS, which is tied for fifth-best in MLB (see ESPN.com).

Jeter could bat second, but that's where Robinson Cano has spent the bulk of his time this season, and he's performed much better there than he has in the No. 3 hole. Cano has a .994 OPS batting second compared to a .653 OPS (though that number will get a boost once his 3-for-6 showing on Thursday is absorbed into the Baseball-Reference.com celestial being).

Cano's not your typical No. 2 man, but that's nothing to whine about. As ESPN's Keith Law pointed out in an Insider post back in April, batting your best hitter second statistically makes more sense than batting him third.

Girardi would be wise to keep Cano in the No. 2 hole, and he shouldn't even think about swapping out Gardner for Jeter in the leadoff spot unless Jeter proves for the umpteenth time that he's not like other foolish mortals.

Even then, it would be a shame to see a guy with Gardner's on-base prowess, speed and surprising power shifted lower in the order. Jeter's reputation is all well and dandy, but Gardner's just about everything the Yankees could ask for in a leadoff hitter.

USA TODAY Sports
Best word to describe Brett Gardner: Horribly underappreciated. That's two words, which should give you an idea what I mean.

The better alternative would be for Girardi to plug Jeter where the Yankees could actually use a league-average hitter. To that end, he'll be able to take his pick. Just take a look at the OPSs for each batting order position in the Yankees' lineup:

  • No. 1: .814
  • No. 2: .817
  • No. 3: .717
  • No. 4: .670
  • No. 5: .621
  • No. 6: .683
  • No. 7: .655
  • No. 8: .630
  • No. 9: .634

It's not quite a straight countdown all the way to the bottom, but it's pretty close.

Jeter could work in the No. 6 spot as a sort of second leadoff man in the Yankees' batting order. He could fill a similar role in the No. 9 spot, though Girardi would likely be afraid to go there after what happened the last time he slotted a respected veteran that low.

Another idea, however, would be to bat Jeter third. That's typically a power position, but the Yankees got quality production in the No. 3 spot out a lesser power hitter in 2007 and 2008 when Bobby Abreu was the man for the job.

Where in the order should Derek Jeter bat when he returns?

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Abreu didn't even provide 15 homers out of the No. 3 spot in 2007, but he made things happen by getting on base and keeping the line moving. Jeter's not as prolific an on-base merchant, but at least he puts the bat on the ball and specializes in hitting it where they ain't.

Batting Jeter third would also allow Mark Teixeira to bat cleanup, where the Yankees have gotten downright unacceptable production from the likes of Travis Hafner and Vernon Wells. With him there, Curtis Granderson's power would be a good fit in the No. 5 spot, and then the assorted dregs would fall into line in places where they could do less harm.

The No. 3 hole would be my home for Jeter, but it's worth repeating that Girardi's going to have a wide array of options for where to put Jeter once he comes back. He just needs hitters, period, and Jeter can spark the Yankees' offense just by coming back and being decent.

Yes, we're talking about a merely decent hitter potentially sparking the Yankees' offense from anywhere in the lineup. It really has come to that.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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