Over the last two decades, the New York Yankees have put the fate of their franchise in Derek Jeter's hands. Now, as the 39-year-old enters the twilight of his career, the team is asking its captain to do something only three shortstops in the history of the sport have done: profile as an everyday shortstop as a 40-year-old.
From 1996 through 2012, spanning the first 17 seasons of Derek Jeter's career, the Yankees shortstop averaged 151 games played per year. That number, remarkable on its own, is even more staggering when considering the chunk of games missed in both 2003 and 2011 due to shoulder and calf injuries, respectively.
For 15 of 17 big league seasons, Jeter played in at least 148 games. During that span, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer racked up 71.6 bWAR and five World Series rings.
After an injury-plagued 2013 that limited him to just 17 games, the Yankees are banking on Jeter to regain his health and take the field on an everyday basis during the 2014 season.
Based on the history of baseball, it's a major risk.
Only three shortstops—Honus Wagner, Omar Vizquel and Luke Appling—have logged 500-plus plate appearances in an age-40 season. Even if we dilute the criteria down to include Barry Larkin's 2004 season, Jeter is chasing his past as his present becomes a murky issue around the win-now Yankees.
The precedent has been set for Jeter to strive for, but an apples-to-apples comparison isn't quite fair in this situation. None of the shortstops above missed as much time as Jeter during their age-39 seasons. In fact, on average, the quartet of 40-year-old iron men played in more than 96 games in the season prior—in other words, five times as many as Jeter did last year.
As you can see, the shortstops profiled defied the odds but didn't carry their teams.
For the Yankees, that's an acceptable scenario due to the dearth of options behind Jeter on the roster. As long as the 19-year veteran is healthy enough to take the field, he'll be productive enough to slide somewhere near Appling and Larkin in OPS productivity.
MLB Network's Brian Kenny, when breaking down the top 10 shortstops right now (video below), alluded to a healthy Jeter as a productive player. Considering that Jeter's 2012 produced a .791 OPS, 216 hits and 99 runs scored, don't expect any argument here.
Yet, it's Jeter's ability to actually stay on the field that should have the Yankees' brass worried.
Over the next few weeks, as veteran players begin to trickle into Florida and Arizona for spring training, expect to hear more stories like this one from Matt Ehalt of ESPN New York about Jeter's excellent health, workout regimen and reasons why Jeter's 2013 didn't go as planned.
It's easy to fall for the trap that Jeter's leg issues in 2013—stemming from a broken ankle suffered in the 2012 ALCS—will disappear with a full winter of conditioning and strength work. After all, Jeter wasn't able to work out his lower body last year, contributing to muscle pulls and awkward running when he eventually returned for unproductive stints last season.
However, the attrition of a season, combined with Jeter's age and lack of alternatives behind him on the Yankees depth chart, should be a cause for concern.
Is Derek Jeter still an everyday player?
Unless the team changes course and pursues free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew, which isn't likely according to Peter Gammons, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is poised to present manager Joe Girardi with a difficult decision: run a potentially productive 40-year-old shortstop into the ground and back to injury or cut his playing time in favor of offensively challenged players.
At this moment, Brendan Ryan and Eduardo Nunez are the only other shortstops on the Yankees' 40-man roster. Last year, sorting by players afforded at least 300 plate appearances, Ryan had the worst OPS (.528) in the sport, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Since debuting in 2010, Nunez's OPS+ of 87 puts him about 13 percent worse than the league average.
Simply put, the Yankees don't have enough offense at shortstop to survive if Jeter misses time.
If we can see that, surely the front office of one of baseball's most successful teams should clearly understand it. Bryan Hoch of MLB.com doesn't think the Yankees want to bet against Derek Jeter. As he explains in the following video, they want Jeter to come back and play shortstop at a high level once again.
To be fair, Jeter has defied the odds and critics before. After an awful 2010 (90 OPS+), Jeter returned to his old form after he surpassed the 3,000-hit plateau in 2011. When Jeter owned a .260/.327/.327 slash line on June 3, 2011, it was easy to understand why the words "finished" and "end of the line" were associated with the Cooperstown-bound star.
As if on cue, Jeter reclaimed his stroke that summer. From June 4, 2011, through the end of that season, the freshly minted member of the 3,000-hit club carried an .805 OPS. To put that number into perspective, Jeter's carer OPS is .828. At the age of 37, he was nearly as good as he's been for an entire career.
Doubting Derek Jeter is a fool's errand. Clearly, the Yankees believe in the health of their shortstop. If they didn't, a viable backup option would already be present on the roster for the 2014 season.
Time will tell if Brian Cashman and Co. are correct, but as of right now, it's hard not to be worried about the team if Jeter's age forces him to miss significant time again this summer.
Should the Yankees be more concerned about Derek Jeter?
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