June 30, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL East
Coming Up Short at Shortstop
The reigning king of the AL East’s shortstops is, of course, Derek Jeter, but as The Times reminded us last week, Jeter is aging quickly. He’s currently on the disabled list for a strained calf suffered while jogging off the field. This has been the second-longest DL stint of his career, and for a player who has long played hurt and healed quickly, the next two-and-a-half guaranteed years—let alone that player option—might not fly by.
With Jeter ensconced at short, the Yankees aren’t looking to upgrade at short. When asked about cross-town rival Jose Reyes, who will be a free agent in a few months, GM Brian Cashman unequivocally denied interest. “That’s just not going to happen,” Cashman said. “We have an everyday shortstop in Derek Jeter, and I think we have an everyday shortstop that would be playing for a lot of clubs in Eduardo Nuñez. The Yankees don’t have a need now or in the future for a shortstop.”
Of course, Cashman can’t tamper with Reyes and express the Yankees’ interest, but his words ring particularly hollow considering the offensive state of AL East shortstops. Let’s break it down:
Reyes’ offensive production this season has been off the charts. At age 28, he’s head-and-shoulders above any shortstop the American League East can offer. J.J. Hardy is having a career year for the Orioles, and Yunel Escobar has matured into a productive bat whom the Jays recently deemed worthy of an extension. Otherwise, the rest of the division’s shortstops haven’t made much noise.
New York and Boston are, of course, the two teams that can most easily afford Reyes, and they’re also the two teams that should be interested in him. In the early going, the Red Sox were able to get by with the power of Jed Lowrie, but his magic April came to a screeching halt. He’s now batting just .270 with a .319 on-base percentage, and he has struggled to stay healthy, a trait that has long eluded him. Marco Scutaro’s .277/.343/.369 line may be adequate, but he’s an injury-plagued 35.
The Red Sox, though, wouldn’t appear to be that interested in Reyes. They’ve spent a lot on free agents of late and can’t add payroll this year. Their financial flexibility may be limited over the next few winters, as well. Plus, they supposedly have a shortstop of the future in Jose Iglesias. The 21-year-old projects to be a future Gold Glover, but he has a 503 OPS in Triple-A through 228 plate appearances. Just three of his hits have gone for extra bases. Rey Ordoñez, the last all-field, no-hit shortstop from Cuba, wasn’t even worth five wins over his career, and many seem to compare Iglesias to the former Met.
While the Rays could use an upgrade over Reid Brignac, they don’t have the money for Reyes. That leaves the rich Yankees. Shouldn’t they at least kick the tires on the darling of the Flushing Faithful? They have the money, the need, and, unfortunately for them, the incumbent shortstop who isn’t getting any younger.
Jeter hasn’t played for the Yanks since June 13. In his absence, they have gone 11-3, but that’s partially a testament to the weak National League teams they’ve played during the days of interleague play. Still, Jeter wasn’t blowing down the fences when he was on the field. Prior to beginning his stint on the DL, he was hitting .260/.324/.324, a far cry from his career .312/.383/.449 line. The Yankees seem to expect Jeter’s slump to end, but it’s not really a slump anymore—it’s the offensive production of an aging middle infielder. Since the start of 2010, Jeter has amassed 1032 plate appearances and has hit .267/.336/.357. That’s what Derek Jeter is at the plate now.
His replacement in the field has fared better, but not by much. Never much of a hitter in the minors, Eduardo Nuñez has hit .277/.333/.383 in Jeter’s absence and has a .243/.291/.359 line overall. His fielding has been even worse. Last night, Nuñez made his tenth error of the year, and entering the game, he had an .895 fielding percentage at shortstop in 193 innings. That statistic has its shortcomings, but you would have to go back to Neal Ball in 1908 to find a shortstop who played so much with such a low fielding percentage. The Yanks are either trying to fool themselves or someone else if they are as high on Nuñez as Cashman says they are.
Ultimately, then, Jose Reyes should be a target for the two AL East teams who can afford him. The Yankees can’t allow Jeter’s contract to hamstring their starting nine, and the Red Sox could be wading into an AL East battleground with a future shortstop who is inept at the plate. Reyes would be a potent force atop some of the AL East’s already powerful lineups. The Mets, hanging around in the Wild Card, aren’t inclined to give him up, and they may have the money to sign him. Still, the two beasts of the AL East have to be interested despite, what their general managers might say.