When the dust settles on Derek Jeter's farewell season, the Yankees will be forced to face a question that's been dormant for nearly two decades in New York: Who is going to play shortstop next?
For most teams, this is a yearly or frequent exercise. Unless a stud emerges from the farm system, finding a star-caliber shortstop is difficult.
Luckily for the Yankees, one could be available on the open market next winter.
No, we're not talking about Jed Lowrie, Asdrubal Cabrera or J.J. Hardy. While all are good players, none profiles as the perfect heir to Derek Jeter's shortstop throne in New York. Instead, that distinction belongs to current Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
In order to peel back the thinking within the Yankees' brain trust, let's take a look at why they would be wise to send a batch of scouts to follow Ramirez's progress, health and ability throughout the 2014 season.
First, as always when it comes to free-agent signings, is production.
When healthy, Ramirez isn't just a good replacement for Jeter; he's one of the best offensive shortstops in baseball history.
Since debuting as a 22-year-old star in Florida, Ramirez has raked. The following chart shows his production compared to every top shortstop in baseball history during their respective age-22-29 seasons.
|Top SS Production in MLB History (Age 22-29)|
As you can see, Ramirez's bat is among the best ever at the position. If not for health concerns, baseball fans would be plotting an eventual trip to Cooperstown for the 30-year-old slugger. Over the last three seasons (2011-13), Ramirez has played in over 100 games just once.
After averaging 152 games per season during his first five years in Florida, it's fair to wonder if health will continue to be an issue moving forward.
However, production shouldn't be a concern.
Last year, Ramirez was arguably the best hitter in the National League, posting a 190 OPS+ for the Dodgers during their run to the NL West title. In fact, Los Angeles' ascension in the standings coincided with Ramirez's return from injury in June.
While Yasiel Puig's emergence received most of the credit, the Dodgers welcomed game-changing production from Ramirez during their 53-13 run from late June through early September. During that span (June 22-Sept. 3), Ramirez posted a .327/.376/.615 slash line. If that slugging percentage isn't eye-opening, consider this: Miguel Cabrera's .620 mark over the last two years is almost identical.
Clearly, Ramirez can adequately replace Jeter in New York's lineup. Furthermore, if his large frame (6'2", 225 lbs) dictates a future move to third base—a position he played in 2012—it will buy the Yankees time to replace Jeter with a younger option and serve as a long-term plan for Alex Rodriguez's eventual exit from the Bronx.
From a lineup perspective, Ramirez's power bat would provide a different dynamic to New York's batting order. With Alfonso Soriano in the last year of his long-term contract, Ramirez could slide into the middle of New York's lineup along with Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann, giving manager Joe Girardi a right-handed complement to the switch-hitting first baseman and left-handed catcher.
Of course, there's more to this equation than just production. If Ramirez is the guy to replace Jeter, a different set of criteria will apply.
The first—willingness to understand Jeter's legacy and what he meant to baseball—can be checked off.
Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports spoke to Ramirez about replacing Jeter in 2015, assuming the Dodgers star doesn't sign a long-term extension in Los Angeles before next winter. While dodging a question that could be a distraction in the Dodgers' clubhouse, Ramirez went out of his way to praise Jeter's career and what he meant to him:
"Everybody knows I grew up looking at Jeter," said Ramirez. "It's why I wore No. 2 in Miami. He was my idol, my hero. We're going to miss him on the field. He's great on the field, off the field. Everybody's going to miss him."
When Jeter's retirement announcement sent shock waves through baseball, Ramirez echoed those sentiments to his fans.
Outside of production and willingness to ascend to Jeter's throne, the next Yankee shortstop will need to procure some of the leadership and team-first attributes that New York fans have become accustomed to since 1996. Earlier in Ramirez's career, those traits were tough to find. Since arriving to Los Angeles, that seems to have changed.
When asked about Ramirez's number tribute to Jeter, his current manager—and former Yankees captain and coach—Don Mattingly had this to say about Ramirez's on-field character, per Morosi's column:
"We've seen nothing but a Derek Jeter-style player—a little different style, obviously, because he's more flamboyant and coming from a different place. But we see a lot of the leadership qualities in Hanley. And it shows, now that you tell me, that he wants to be that kind of guy," Mattingly said.
Over the next few years, a leadership void could be apparent in New York's clubhouse. After recent retirements of Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, Jeter is the last leader from the successful teams of the '90's. When he's gone, someone will have to step up.
While it's not surprising to hear Ramirez's manager praise one of his best players, the endorsement of a teammate carries significant weight. When asked about Ramirez's presence on the field, Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis had glowing reviews of his teammate, per Morosi's column:
"Hanley's such a joy to play with. He's such a leader out there in the middle of the field, somebody I trust and count on to keep me involved in the game. He's always somebody who comes to the mound [during conferences] and brings intensity and a strong desire to win that's infectious to the rest of us."
At some point, the Yankees are going to attempt to replace Jeter with a long-term option. In reality, no one can duplicate what Jeter is and has been for the past two decades. The next Yankees shortstop will be compared to a once-in-a-lifetime player.
Ramirez's apparent red flags—injury history, age, price tag in free agency—didn't scare the team away from handing Jacoby Ellsbury a seven-year, $153 million contract this winter.
Next February, as the Yankees report to their first spring training without Jeter in over 20 years, signing Ramirez to fill the void is the logical move for a franchise in transition.
Agree? Disagree? Who should be the next Yankees shortstop?
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