Chik Chatting: Jeter watch
Updated 10:18 pm, Wednesday, July 6, 2011
If you're a baseball fan, chances are that you're in on "Jeter watch" this season. The Yankee captain has never been under more scrutiny, thanks in large part to a subpar 2010 season, contentious contract negotiations in the offseason and a slow start to 2011 which included a recent stint on the disabled list.
Whether it's on the radio, on TV, at the ballpark or at the water cooler, everyone seems to be voicing an opinion on how the Yankees should handle their aging superstar, who stands just four base hits away from number 3,000 (at press time).
First of all, let's remember one thing: a .257 batting average is not a .157 batting average. It's not as if Jeter is killing the Yankees and that he's stepping up to the plate with no chance of getting a hit. Despite his moderate struggles, he's rarely looked overmatched, he's still able to steal some bases (seven on the season) and he typically isn't swinging at bad pitches, qualities which are important for a leadoff hitter.
Many have been calling for Jeter to be replaced at the top of the lineup by Brett Gardner, a younger and faster alternative. However, Gardner is batting just .271 compared to Jeter's .257, so it's barely an upgrade (to be completely fair, Gardner's on base percentage is .354 compared to Jeter's .320). Having someone with the raw speed of Gardner to "set the table" for the rest of the lineup is an enticing option, and by season's end, it's conceivable that the Yankees would simply be forced to bat Gardner first and drop Jeter in the lineup.
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However, the Yankees shouldn't make that change until it is absolutely necessary. One of Joe Girardi's strengths as manager is that he typically allows his players to settle into a defined role. That is, the lineup looks relatively similar each day, in terms of where players bat.
The potential upgrade in making a switch from Jeter to Gardner leading off probably isn't significant enough to warrant the possibility of "upsetting the apple cart," at least not yet. So, the leadoff spot should belong to Jeter until he thoroughly plays himself out of it and Gardner thoroughly plays himself into it.
Another area of Jeter's game which has been under the microscope for even longer than his hitting ability is his defense. While it's true that there are better defensive shortstops in the league and that his range has decreased over the years, Jeter is still the best option the Yankees have, as evidenced by the shaky play of replacements Eduardo Nunez and Ramiro Pena during Jeter's absence. Jeter may not be able to make that diving play in the hole, but he's also going to make the play on every ball that he can get to. Jeter always makes the routine play, and that carries value, especially in postseason play.
Is Jeter the player he once was, or even the guy who batted .334 in 2009? No. But is it killing the Yankees to keep penciling him into the leadoff spot? Absolutely not.
Time catches all of us and eventually the day will come when Jeter will no longer possess the skill set to serve as the Yankee leadoff hitter, or even the starting shortstop. But today is not that day.