Derek Jeter is finally healthy. In fact, the 39-year-old is feeling better than ever at the onset of his final spring training.
"Everything is good," Jeter told Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, knocking his knuckles against the wood of his clubhouse locker. "Like I told you, I've been working extremely hard to get my strength back. I feel like it's back, I feel strong, so it's not an issue in my mind. I don't think about it."
Jeter, of course, was limited to just 17 games last year due to injuries and batted .190/.288/.254 in 73 plate appearances. The Yankee captain missed 111 games due to lingering effects from offseason surgery on his right ankle, and then announced prior to the start of spring training that 2014 will be his final season in the major leagues.
After spending the offseason running and conditioning and building up strength in his lower half, Jeter has been starting games on an every-other-day basis this spring. However, the plan is for him to eventually work up to playing three straight days and accrue about 60 spring-training at-bats.
As expected, Jeter has been rusty after the long layoff, going 0-for-9 with a walk and eight groundouts (three of which resulted in double plays) through his first four games. However, as long as he stays healthy, the sure-fire Hall of Famer should begin to round into form as the regular season nears.
Jeter’s Spring So Far
In his first at-bat, Jeter saw eight pitches from right-hander Charlie Morton before grounding into a 4-6-3 double play, and he didn’t appear to be favoring his surgically repaired ankle while hustling down the line. Jeter looked even better running to first in the fourth inning, nearly beating the throw from third baseman Josh Harrison after rolling over a pitch against left-hander Jeff Locke.
Though the ball never found Jeter at shortstop and he wasn’t tested defensively, Manager Joe Girardi was still impressed with how his shortstop moved in his spring debut (via Hoch):
"To me, that was where it was most noticeable last year, when he was running the bases," Girardi said. "For me, that's where it's going to show up."
"I thought he ran pretty hard today down to first, and that was really good to see, because we haven't seen that in a while," Girardi said. "You've got to go back to 2012. So that's a great sign for us and a great sign for him."
On Saturday Jeter was back at shortstop against the Phillies for Masahiro Tanaka’s highly anticipated Yankees’ debut, and he did his best not to steal the Japanese right-hander’s spotlight by going 0-for-2 with a walk and run scored.
After striking out swinging in the first inning, Jeter drew a four-pitch walk in the third inning against Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who, like Tanaka, was also making his stateside debut. In his final trip to the plate in the bottom of the fifth, Jeter swung at the first pitch from right-hander Kevin Munson and hit a groundball to third baseman Cody Asche, who made an errant throw across the infield and allowed Jeter to reach second base.
Jeter was tested defensively in the game for the first time this spring, and he looked smooth turning a double play in the third inning. Specifically, the captain hauled in a chopper in front of second base off the bat of Ben Revere, tagged out Cesar Hernandez on the run before throwing to first base to finish the play.
Jeter started at shortstop once again on Monday against the Nationals, and once again he failed to collect his first spring knock.
After grounding out to shortstop against left-hander Ross Detwiler in the first inning, Jeter hit into another 4-6-3 double play against southpaw Danny Rosenbaum in the bottom of the second. He would later hit a weak groundout to pitcher Xavier Cedeno in the fifth inning. Jeter also committed his first spring error in the game, botching a grounder up the middle in the sixth that allowed Eury Perez to score.
Though there weren’t any positives to take away from Jeter’s performance on Monday, it was encouraging to see him back in the lineup Tuesday night against the Orioles, albeit as the designated hitter.
Unfortunately, it was more of the same for the Yankee captain in his first at-bat, as Jeter hit a soft groundball to shortstop on a 2-0, 91 mph fastball from left-hander Wei-Yin Chen for a 6-3 double play.
Jeter looked better in his second at-bat of the game in the third; he got good wood on a 1-0 fastball from right-hander Josh Stinson but pushed it foul down the right field line. However, he was retired on the very next pitch after chopping the ball to third base.
Jeter appears to be pain-free this spring and is running well. At the same time, any sort of fluid, unimpeded movement was bound to look better compared to how he hobbled around the field in 2013. Yet, that shouldn’t detract from the fact he’s already playing back-to-back days roughly one week into the spring-training schedule.
Given the overall decline in his defense since 2010, per FanGraphs, Jeter’s performance at shortstop this season will likely reflect his 39 years of age; he’ll make all the routine plays as he always does but will get to even fewer balls than he did in previous years. So expect him to be replaced late in games by Brendan Ryan. Still, in spite of his lack of range and quickness, Jeter should serve as the Yankees’ everyday shortstop so long as he stays healthy.
While Jeter’s legs appear to be in good shape this spring, his bat speed simply has not been there—though that was expected having not played in a meaningful game since Sept. 7 of last year.
Through his first four games, Jeter has been perpetually tardy on league-average fastballs, generating lots of weak contact and struggling to drive through the ball. Overall, Jeter is 0-for-9 this spring, and he’s grounded into three double plays without hitting a single ball out of the infield.
As with his range, Jeter won’t feature the same bat speed this year as he has in the past, and he may end up struggling with good velocity on his hands as a result. But with that being said, it’s impossible to completely discount Jeter’s ability as a hitter given his Hall of Fame career. So, as he gets more and more at-bats under his belt this spring and regains a feel for his swing, Jeter should start to come around at the plate and be ready for the start of the regular season.