|Derek Jeter at third base could be the best alignment for the Yankees. (USATSI)|
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced this week that the upcoming 2014 season would be his last. When he takes his final swings this season, it'll mark the end of the career of one of the true greats of this era of baseball.
For all Jeter's greatness, one area where he has been judged as less than great is on defense. A debate has long simmered about whether Jeter is a quality defender. Some laud his five Gold Glove awards, while detractors point to his poor performance in advanced statistical markers.
Thanks to his multitude of contributions throughout his storied career, Jeter has earned the right to stick at shortstop if he wants. He could also move to another position if he wants – at this point, the Yankees should be more than willing to let Jeter call the shots on his final season, up to and including letting him replace Mariano Rivera in the closer role if he so desires.
So there's no question Jeter will fill the shortstop position day in and day out as he has done nearly every day since the mid-1990s. He's earned the right to do so. But is having Jeter play shortstop the best possible use of the players the team has its disposal? I'm not sure it is.
There are a million reasons why they'd never let me manage the Yankees, but I'm going to put the "fanager" hat on for a few minutes and imagine an everyday lineup that features Jeter at a different position.
Shortstop: Brendan Ryan
While Ryan can't be counted upon to make a positive contribution at the plate, he's recognized as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game. Among 30 active players that have logged at least 2,000 innings at the position, Ryan ranks second with an 11.7 UZR per 150 innings, according to FanGraphs. Jeter checks in at 27th on the same list with a -6.8 UZR per 150 innings. Making such a monumental upgrade at the most critical defensive position on the field goes a long way to finding a few extra wins that could represent the difference in a competitive division race.
Third Base: Derek Jeter
While Jeter's defense at shortstop has been picked apart by advanced metrics, it's important to realize, as Jeff Sullivan did at FanGraphs, that a poor defender at shortstop still represents a pretty solid defender overall. While Jeter may not have been the best defensive shortstop in baseball, the fact that he was able to play the position at all, and especially for 17-plus seasons, deserves more credit.
By shifting to third base, Jeter gets to handle an easier defensive position in his final season. On the defensive spectrum as introduced by Bill James, third base comes three rungs lower than shortstop, falling behind both second base and center field. Players like Juan Uribe and Jeff Keppinger have seen an uptick in their defensive numbers at third base after playing shortstop earlier in their careers. If Jeter is a poor defensive shortstop, could he make for a league average or better defensive third baseman?
Second Base: Kelly Johnson
Johnson got his first taste of third base last season with the Rays and played well in a small sample size at the position, but he's been a second baseman for much of his career and has put up around league average defensive numbers at the position. Primarily a left fielder in 2013, Johnson saw about the same amount of innings at second base and third base last season, and while he was good at third base, he performed much better at second base.
If Johnson can contribute a league-average defensive season at second base, that stops the Yankees from having to rely on a massive contribution from Brian Roberts, who has had consistent trouble staying on the field over the last four seasons. Roberts did a good job at second base last season, seeing 500 innings at the position for the first time since 2009, but his injury history begs to have a backup plan handy at the very least for when he's unavailable. Using him as a spot starter at second base during Jeter's appearances at DH, with Johnson sliding over to third base, could be the best opportunity to use Roberts semiregularly without worrying as much about wearing him out.
As good as Ryan is playing shortstop, he's been a disaster at the plate, limiting his overall value to a team. While Jeter's offense has taken a downward turn in recent seasons, he's still capable of being above average with the bat. When comparing the two overall, an argument to keep Jeter in the lineup makes sense.
But Ryan wouldn't be replacing Jeter in the lineup, just at shortstop. His bat would take the place of Roberts, who was a quality offensive player in his prime but is much less so over the last four injury-plagued seasons. He's still a better hitter than Ryan, but the gap is much smaller than the one between Ryan and Jeter. Either Ryan or Roberts would inhabit the ninth spot in the lineup regardless of how the defense shakes out, thereby limiting the plate appearances of either one, which further helps to reduce the negative offensive impact Ryan would have as an everyday player.
The AL East should once again be a slugfest between several capable teams, and using the best defensive alignment could equal a few extra wins the Yankees would otherwise not manage. Fielding a team without Jeter at shortstop could be that difference if he's up for moving away from the position that he's earned every right to continue manning. There's no debate that the best potential outcome for the Yankees would be to win the World Series with Jeter at shortstop, sending him out with a sixth championship to display on his Hall of Fame plaque.