Can Yanks endure in Jeter's absence?

BY Ken Rosenthal • April 18, 2013

No one should be surprised that a shortstop who is nearly 39 will not recover from a broken ankle as quickly as he or his team wants.

Derek Jeter no longer possesses miraculous healing powers. Among the Yankees’ 30-somethings, he hardly is alone.

Third baseman Alex Rodriguez, 37, is supposed to return from hip surgery at the All-Star break. Believe it when you see it.

First baseman Mark Teixeira, 33, is supposed to return from a partially torn tendon sheath in his right wrist in early May. Believe that when you see it, too.

Teixeira is trying to recover from a similar injury that Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista had last season — one that ultimately led to season-ending surgery.

The point is, these rehabs aren’t always smooth, or easy. Fans always should view all timetables on injuries skeptically, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

For the Yankees, the question of the moment is just how effectively they can endure their latest bit of bad health news — that Jeter will be out until after the All-Star break with a new crack in his surgically repaired left ankle.

Beyond that, there is a larger concern.

Who knows what the team will get from Jeter, A-Rod and Teixeira when they return, or even from outfielder Curtis Granderson, who is coming off a fractured right forearm? Who knows which of the club’s healthy 30-something or 40-something players will also miss time?

To this point, the Yankees have fared surprisingly well with their patchwork lineup, going 7-1 after a 1-4 start. But the team’s entire premise — hold on until the big boys return — gets trickier now.

Few expect designated hitter Travis Hafner to keep his OPS above 1.100 all season, or even infielder Kevin Youkilis and outfielder Vernon Wells to stay above .900. But the Yankees’ thinking was that Hafner, Wells, Lyle Overbay and Co. only would need to provide a short burst of solid production. To some degree, they will need to extend their early-season success.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman is adept at finding reinforcements, going back several years now. Perhaps he can bring in a few new Overbays and Brennan Boesches, if necessary; such players are eminently fungible. It’s just a tough way to contend, that’s all.

The biggest question in Jeter’s absence, of course, is whether Eduardo Nunez can play an adequate shortstop. The Yankees like what they’ve seen out of Nunez so far — zero errors in 68 innings entering Thursday night's game. Advanced defensive metrics are less kind, and Jayson Nix as a backup is average at best defensively. But heck, it’s not as if Jeter fielded like Ozzie Smith the past several years.

Who knows? Maybe Nunez will relax knowing the position is his for at least 3 1/2 months; his offensive potential remains intriguing, even if he is off to a slow start. In that sense, the delay in Jeter’s return could produce an unexpected benefit. If Nunez proves capable, the Yankees need not worry about finding a shortstop of the future.

In reality, though, it’s difficult to imagine Nunez advancing that much defensively in such a short period of time. The Yankees have known for some time that they need to find a long-term solution at the position. That doesn’t change with Thursday’s developments.

Jeter can return next season on a player option; he won a Silver Slugger last season that raised the value from $8 million to $9.5 million, but can forget about realizing any of the bonuses that would have increased his base salary to as much as $17 million. Whether he returns as a viable shortstop in either ’13 or ’14 is another question entirely.

It’s early, but the Yankees already have proved a lot of people wrong, including myself, with their 8-5 start. If they can sustain this juggling act all season, it will be the greatest testament yet to their resilience and winning culture.

Jeter’s extended absence makes the challenge that much tougher. At this point, the Yankees would be satisfied just to get back the player they had last season. The player we may never see again in the same form.

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