April 2, 2003
Solving the Jeter Problem
Despite losing their star shortstop to a separated shoulder Monday night, the Yankees bounced back to win Tuesday afternoon, 10-1. They even got a notable game from Derek Jeter's short-term replacement, Enrique Wilson, who chipped in with a single, a double and a walk.
Let's get something out of the way: the injury to Jeter was an accident, and was by no means the result of dirty play by Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby. In fact, Huckaby made a heck of a play to recognize that Jeter was trying to take third base and to get in position to receive a throw and make a tag. I'm convinced that if you changed the identities of the players, and had Mike Matheny charging down the line to tag out, I don't know, Julio Lugo or someone, there'd be no discussion of "dirty" play, and all the focus would be on the heady play of the scrappy veteran backstop.
(I do think Jeter acquired the bag safely and was subsequently knocked off by Huckaby, and the original "safe" call should have stood. If Jeter is going to be out in that circumstance, to me it opens up a whole new way of handling tag plays. Maybe Kent Hrbek can come out of retirement, or Junior Seau can shop himself to 30 more teams.)
Regardless of who you deem responsible, Jeter is out for at least six weeks. I think that's a ridiculously optimistic view. In talking with people Monday, I guessed All-Star break at the earliest, possibly out for the year, and Will Carroll concurs. I think the Yankees need to approach this as if they've lost Jeter for most, if not all, of the season. This is a pretty big problem, because as much depth as the Yankees have had over the years on the corners and in the rotation, they've been ridiculously thin up the middle, a situation I finally stopped yammering about in my season preview pieces, just in time for lightning to strike.
The Yankees' current plan is to go with prospect Erick Almonte as the regular. Well, "prospect" is too strong a word for a 25-year-old with Almonte's track record. PECOTA's weighted mean projection has him hitting .232/.297/.400 this year. Computers are smarter than I am, but I can't see Almonte, who struck out 119 times in 408 at-bats last year, hitting .232 or slugging .400. If the Yankees can get a 700 OPS out of him, they should be absolutely thrilled; .210/.260/.340 is much more likely, in my opinion. Almonte's entire prospect status rests on four months of .287/.371/.464 ball at Columbus two years ago, a performance he failed to repeat in 2002. There's a lot of spin about how he was disastisfied with being trapped behind Jeter and let that affect his play, but I don't think you can spin a strikeout rate like that, and it's not like he has the reputation or performance record of a gloveman.
Red Sox fans may see this as cosmic justice. In 2001 their superstar shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, missed virtually the entire season with a wrist injury. Unprepared for such an occurrence, the Sox patched their way through the season with an assortment of bad ideas, led by Mike Lansing and Lou Merloni. Sox shortstops hit .243/.299/.367 that year; you can estimate that not having Garciaparra and his .320/.380/.520 bat probably cost the team somewhere between six and eight wins. That was the difference between being in a race, and being buried by the Yankees by Labor Day and finishing 82-79.
That's the fate the Yankees may face if Almonte replaces Jeter for a full season.
Now, one route the Yankees could take is to trade for a shortstop. In his Tuesday column, Rob Neyer listed the potential options in the market, only one of whom, Orlando Cabrera, is really worth acquiring, and it's doubtful that the Expos are interested in moving him at this point, or that the Yankees have the talent to make a deal for him. No one else who might be available is good enough to be worth the effort, save Omar Vizquel, who's signed for an average of $7.5 million a year through the 2004 season.
With no good options to fill the shortstop hole, I think the Yankees should get creative and move Alfonso Soriano back there. Soriano was a shortstop in the minors and only moved off the position to accommodate Jeter. He's nothing special as a second baseman, of course, but then again he's not being asked to fill the shoes of an exceptional defender. Soriano would provide an above-average package of offense and defense at shortstop even if, as I expect, he slips back from his tremendous 2002 performance.
Moving Soriano makes sense because the Yankees have a much larger pool of second basemen from which to choose. Damion Easley isn't worth what the Tigers were paying him, but the Yanks could take a $300,000 flyer and see if he can bounce back to .250/.330/.390 and the kind of defense he played for four years prior to 2002. The A's have Esteban German biding his time at Sacramento; he might be available, assuming Brian Cashman knows who the best-looking GM in the game is.
The Yankees have a good player on the roster who can play shortstop, and a pool of replacement second basemen from which to choose that blows Erick Almonte out of the water. Almonte should be a fallback position, not a first option.
If I were Cashman, though--dare to dream, Joseph, dare to dream--I would skip over Almonte, set aside the outside options for a month and call up Andy Phillips. Phillips gets no attention as a prospect because he's old and can't field well, but he has some power: .305/.386/.618 at Norwich last year--that's in a good pitchers' league--and .263/.298/.459 at Columbus. PECOTA slides him in at .241/.298/.428, just slightly better than Almonte. However, Phillips is coming off a better season and is closer to his peak, both reasons to suspect he would make the adjustment, in the short term, better than Almonte will. (Not that it means much, but both players went 4-for-22 in the spring; Almonte had four walks and a double, Phillips had no secondary bases.)
None of the Yankees' options are good ones, certainly not compared to having an All-Star in his prime. The important thing, though, is that they address the hole in their lineup quickly. Their margin over the Red Sox is effectively gone, and if they don't learn from their rival's experience in 2001, they may find themselves more concerned with the Twins, Rangers and Angels than they ever thought they would be.