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Aging Yankees face lots of questions
Derek Jeter’s left ankle is going to be fine.
It’s the rest of his team I’m worried about.
Jeter, whom you last saw writhing in pain on the Yankee Stadium infield last October, fielded about 80 ground balls at the Yankees’ minor league complex Monday. He did so with minimal lateral movement. He stutter-stepped and set his feet, as if throwing to first base, but didn’t actually deliver the baseball.
Jeter said this was normal, no different than his routine any other spring. He expects to be ready for Opening Day.
“I’m right where I need to be,” he said.
Jeter being Jeter, we’ll take him at his word.
There was something fresh to report Monday: Jeter ran for the first time since undergoing surgery Oct. 20. The newsworthy event took place indoors, before an unsuspecting witness.
"I saw him on the treadmill,” Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson said. “Looked good. It was weird. He was on there. I just came up and we were talking. I didn’t think about that, because he wasn’t hobbling around. He wasn’t wincing in pain or anything. To me, it looked like he was just warming up, getting himself ready to go. He went out there and did things.
“You hear things about it, and you expect people to be helping him off the field. That’s not the case. He’s definitely done a lot, and we’ve still got a little more time before we get things started April 1.”
This is not a best-shape-of-his-life spring training story. Jeter probably is not in the best shape of his life. He is a 38-year-old shortstop whose left leg was non-weight-bearing for a substantial portion of the offseason. He is undergoing physical therapy, which will continue for the foreseeable future. Surprisingly, though, Jeter looks like his old/young self — usual weight, usual haircut, usual aura.
Will Jeter’s range — limited already — diminish this year? No one knows. Not even Jeter, who has yet to swivel around the infield at full speed. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I believe Jeter will play about as well as if he hadn’t sustained the grisly injury during last year’s American League Championship Series.
Jeter is no longer the 32-year-old who nearly won the 2006 AL MVP with a .900 OPS. He is, however, quite capable of a .750 mark — which happens to represent the midpoint between his disappointing 2010 and better-than-expected 2012.
Craig Biggio, the closest historical comparison to Jeter according to Baseball-Reference.com, had a .761 OPS over his age 39 and 40 seasons. Barry Larkin, the Hall of Fame shortstop, produced at a .753 clip during the same two years. Jeter can do the same.
Until further notice, he remains an above-average offensive shortstop. But it’s also true that he can’t carry the Yankees. Neither can Alex Rodriguez, for different — and more distressing — reasons. Hence the anxiety among many fans.
As I’ve said before, the Yankees don’t get nearly the credit they deserve for reaching the playoffs a record 17 times in the past 18 seasons. That’s an enormous achievement in this era of competitive balance, regardless of the Yankees’ financial advantages. And it bears repeating that this team led the American League with 95 wins last year. Yet there are justifiable questions about the franchise’s identity and direction, the sort Jeter has scarcely heard during 17 full seasons as a Yankee.
We knew the organization would undergo turbulence during the early part of this decade, as the Core Four entered their baseball dotage. Jorge Posada retired after the 2011 season. Jeter is the oldest everyday shortstop in the majors by more than three years. This could be the final spring training for Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, each of whom has a one-year contract.
In a vacuum, the transition would be manageable. But it has coincided with two negative developments: Ownership’s insistence on a $189 million payroll for 2014 that restricted GM Brian Cashman’s efforts to improve the team this winter; and the farm system’s inability to produce a starting pitcher or position player who can assume a prominent role on this year’s team.
Baseball America says the Yankees have the industry’s 11th-best farm system — so, better than average — but added the following disclaimer in this year’s Prospect Handbook: “They’re getting ancient in the big leagues and don’t have replacements ready yet.”
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner told reporters last week that the $189 million plan hinges on “some of our young players stepping up and getting the job done.”
Sounds great. Do they have names?
Even as the Yankees developed homegrown All-Stars such as Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes over the last decade, veteran reinforcements were one checkbook flourish away. That’s apparently not the case anymore. Nick Swisher is gone, leaving two players who combined to hit nine home runs last season — Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner — slated for everyday outfield roles. Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli will compete for the starting job at catcher.
A-Rod? Please. He’s a mediocre player who may not contribute at all this year while recovering from surgery. Even before his ties to Anthony Bosch became public in the Miami New Times, Rodriguez’s 2013 season was destined to be a sunk cost at $28 million. From an on-field standpoint, he’s irrelevant until he demonstrates otherwise.
Jeter’s assessment of all this?
“I like our team,” he said after Monday’s workout. “We’ll see what happens. There’s always changes. We’ll be fine.”
He is, as always, Captain Cautious. Jeter won’t say it, but the current changes — and those to come — are a little out of the ordinary for the Yankees. Lest we forget, there’s considerable uncertainty surrounding a man who has been the surest thing in baseball for a decade and a half: The incomparable Rivera has appeared in nine major league games over the past 16 months. He’s 43 and coming back from right knee surgery.
Rivera has held one-man spring camps for several years now, preparing on his own schedule because he can. He pitched in eight Grapefruit League games last year, only five the season before. This year?
“He usually pitches about six (innings),” Jeter said Monday. “Maybe two or three, he’ll be all right.”
Muscle memory, right? The Yankees always find a way ... until that year when they don’t. And that year could be 2013.