Derek Jeter's first game of his last spring training took place on Thursday. The New York Yankees shortstop was named to manager Joe Girardi's starting lineup for their game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, as he continues his recovery from an ankle injury.
Bob Nightengale of USA Today had more information on Jeter's return:
Jeter gets standing ovation from part of the crowd as he comes to the plate #Yankees.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 27, 2014
Jeter went hitless in his two at-bats before being removed after five innings, per Nightengale, who talked to the star shortstop after his outing:
Derek Jeter is done after five innings. #Yankees.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 27, 2014
Jeter pleased with his return: "It felt like I haven't played in two years.'' #Yankees.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) February 27, 2014
Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York broke down Jeter's return:
All in all, it was a successful return for Jeter, who had not appeared in a game since Sept. 7, when he was removed after an RBI single against the Red Sox with soreness in his ankle and was shut down for the season four days later.
The Captain's return to the lineup was expected. New York confirmed Monday that Jeter would not take part in the club's first two spring training games, with the expectation of him debuting against the Pirates.
"It's been a while since I played a game," Jeter told reporters. "I think everyone looks forward to the first game in spring training. You want to get games under your belt. I'm looking forward to it, but don't rush it. I told you, one day at a time."
Not much should be expected of Jeter at this point of spring training. Starters are typically only playing sparse innings, as younger invitees and guys battling for roster spots take center stage early. Jeter's appearance would be ultimately inconsequential—except for the past year of his life being his hardest as a professional.
The future Hall of Famer played in just 17 games in 2013 due to multiple maladies, mostly pertaining to his injured ankle. Jeter suffered a dislocated ankle in Game 1 of the 2012 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, and then he went through an arduous recovery process that included countless setbacks.
He first suffered a crack in the ankle that held him out until July and then had quad and calf injuries that kept him out longer. Jeter's season mercifully ended when another ankle-related setback sent him back to the disabled list in September. Arguably the most famous baseball player in the world, Jeter's return from the first truly debilitating injury of his career would have created enough intrigue.
Then Jeter upped it more.
Jeter announced 2014 would be his last season in a lengthy statement released on his Facebook page Feb. 12. In the rare, public outpouring, Jeter spoke of the difficulties he faced last season while attempting to come back from injury and how those helped him realize it was time for the next phase of his life.
Typically lacking in candor with the media, Jeter hasn't cracked emotionally whatsoever when talking about this being his final season. He has stayed in typically mild demeanor, answering questions mostly in platitudes about it being the "right time" to step away. Still, the 39-year-old has admitted it's tough keeping his emotions in check.
"Yeah, I'm emotional," Jeter told reporters. "It is kind of difficult because we still have a season to play. I have feelings. I'm not emotionally stunted."
The team Jeter returns to in 2014 has undergone one of the biggest reconstructions of Jeter's career. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte's retirements leave Jeter as the only remaining member of the so-called Core Four, a club that will dissipate in its entirety in 2015. Also gone is Robinson Cano, who signed a 10-year megadeal with the Seattle Mariners.
Replacing the old faces is an influx of new talent, highlighted by former Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, catcher Brian McCann, outfielder Carlos Beltran and Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka. The last time the Yankees splurged so much on high-level talent, they wound up with CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and a World Series championship.
Looking at the roster, the Yankees face an uphill battle to repeat history. And the problems start with Jeter's infield. Jeter has never been renowned in the advanced stats community for his defense, and this season he's joined by arguably the worst collection of defensive talent in baseball. Teixeira's best days are behind him at first, Cano was replaced by the entirely replaceable Brian Roberts, and either Eduardo Nunez or Kelly Johnson will be at third for the suspended Alex Rodriguez.
Even beyond the obvious defensive problems, there's no guarantee of offensive production either. With the Yankees coming off an 85-win season—their worst in a full campaign since 1992—it's not going to be easy. The Red Sox are looming as the defending World Series champs, the Rays are constantly in contention, and the Orioles have recently made two high-profile signings to bolster their weaknesses.
For now, it's a celebration of Jeter's return. We'll have to see how long that lasts.