Once upon a time, Derek Jeter was a young, ascending American League shortstop, standing side-by-side with special talents like Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. While the New York Yankees reaped the benefits of a transcendent talent in the middle of the infield, Jeter's shortstop clock ticked away by the year.
Eventually, it was widely assumed, Jeter would move away from the demanding position. Across the history of baseball, great shortstops—from Cal Ripken Jr., to Robin Yount, to Miguel Tejada—moved to less difficult defensive positions as they aged.
For the Yankees, the natural option of sliding Jeter over to third base was eliminated from consideration when Rodriguez arrived in a trade from Texas in the winter of 2004. Despite Rodriguez's stature as the best player in the league and the superior defensive shortstop to Jeter, the Yankees avoided irking a homegrown superstar by facilitating a move away from his natural position.
More than a decade later, Jeter is still playing shortstop in the Bronx. With retirement looming at the conclusion of the season, the soon-to-be 40-year-old will likely start and finish his career in the same spot it began in 1996.
During a spring training press conference to announce his impending retirement, Jeter reiterated that no member of the Yankees organization—from coaches to managers to executives—ever approached him about leaving shortstop, per Ian O'Connor of ESPN New York.
"The idea's never come up from anyone in the organization," Jeter said.
The following chart shows where Jeter ranks among the all-time leaders at games played at the shortstop. Barring an injury, the Yankees shortstop will retire with the most games ever started at the position.
|Shortstop Longevity: Most Games Started at the Position|
But what if the past was different? How would the current Yankees look if Jeter had made a positional switch along the line, possibly after the 2009 season?
First, eliminate the idea of Jeter and Rodriguez swapping positions in 2004. It wasn't going to happen, regardless of the logic that existed to facilitate the move. Jeter was the lifelong Yankee and team captain of a franchise that had captured four World Series since his rookie season. Rodriguez was simply a mercenary, years from cementing his own (mostly negative) status in pinstripes.
Instead, look to the start of the 2010 season for when the Yankees could have asked Jeter to ease away from the only professional position he's known. The timing—critical when dealing with delicate, franchise-altering moves—was perfect. After a World Series victory, Jeter and the Yankees were riding high atop the sport.
Furthermore, switching Jeter away from shortstop would have been prescient, not reactionary. It's easy to critique Jeter's defense, but 2009 was actually a positive year for the future Hall of Famer when it came to his glove. Since that time, Jeter has cost the Yankees 48 runs in the field, per Baseball-Reference.
To be fair, Jeter's defense hasn't ever been as awful as some defensive metrics will lead you to believe.
During his youth, few shortstops were more adept at fielding difficult grounders in the third base hole, tracking shallow fly balls to the outfield or making difficult catches in foul territory. On that same token, few were worse at getting to ground balls directly up the middle.
FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan recently summed up Jeter's career at shortstop perfectly, suggesting that he's been "alright" for a very long period of time. When taking into account how difficult it is to play shortstop at a high level, the idea of calling Jeter an "awful" defensive player does sound silly.
Yet since 2009, Jeter's range has declined precipitously as his age has crept closer and closer to 40. If the Yankees had asked their franchise icon to move away from the middle of the diamond five seasons ago, the team would be in a better place right now.
Assuming the shortstop market would have evolved in the same way, it's more than likely that general manager Brian Cashman would have made a splash to replace Jeter as the everyday shortstop in the Bronx. Toronto's Jose Reyes, Los Angeles' Hanley Ramirez or Texas' Elvis Andrus could be wearing pinstripes today through free agency or a headline-grabbing trade.
It's impossible to say that Jeter would have avoided an injury-plagued 2013 season or the Yankees would have won another World Series since 2009, but a move to left field or designated hitter certainly could have helped keep a special offensive player healthier and more productive during his final seasons.
In theory, one major narrative could have been drastically different if Jeter left shortstop: the future of the position in the Bronx.
There's little chance that Cashman would have let players like Eduardo Nunez or Brendan Ryan generate outs on an everyday basis while Jeter toiled at designated hitter. If Jeter left shortstop, a legitimate long-term answer would have had to arrive in his place.
With 2015 on the horizon, the Yankees still have to find their next shortstop. By thinking ahead, the team could have saved runs, potentially kept Jeter healthier and already had the 2015 starter signed to a long-term pact.
As many of you will attest in the comments, the Yankees weren't wrong for leaving Jeter in his position or eschewing the urge to give into the history of shortstops who moved away from the middle of the diamond. Hypothetical questions can be instructive, but it's likely Cashman and manager Joe Girardi wouldn't change the past even if it was an option.