Monday, April 27, 2009

The Big, Bad Yankee Problem No One's Talking about...yet

This weekend's sweep in Boston left many of the Yankees' immediate weaknesses exposed:

A beat up bullpen
A phantom in center field
A big bad black hole of doom at the bottom of the line up
Starting pitching that didn't so much pitch as throw the ball somewhere in the vicinity of home plate, and prayed.

Yet, these problems are, when you think about it, not necessarily all that bad.

When Alex Rodriguez returns from the line up, it should take care of the big bad black hole of doom at the bottom of the line up.

If Cashman wanted, he could probably sign Mike Cameron for a reasonable amount and receive an upgrade over Melky and Gardner in center field.

The bullpen's a mess because Bruney's hurt, though this should be a relatively minor injury, and Mark Melancon certainly impressed tonight. When the starters start giving more innings, the bullpen will be in much better shape.

There's no reason the starting pitching can't get its act together, either. Power pitchers-and the Yanks have three in their rotation-can take a while to heat up. We all know how CC struggled last April.

These problems exist, and frustrate, but they are not the end of the world.

However, the Yankees do have a much bigger issue to contend with, and it only takes a little digging to see what it is.

Derek Jeter's contract is up in 2010--the end of next season.

This, itself, is a big enough problem already.

Jeter's power declined enough last season that many fans considered him a GIDP machine, and they weren't the only one. This season, except when Girardi has opted to play both Gardner and Cabrera, Jeter has hit lead-off, to avoid the DPs.

He is showing more power this season, early though it is, than he did last season, but there is no guarantee that it will last.

What's more, no team has ever won a World Series with a starting shortstop aged 35 or older.

Then, of course, there's Jeter's defense, which, Andrew Fletcher of Scott Proctor's Arm has generously described as "past a diving Jeter"...

Now, imagine for a moment that the Yankees are not playing sentimental, that they are thinking long term and elect not to resign Jeter, or not to resign him for any longer than one year.

Guess what wonderful task the Yankees are then faced with?

Replacing Derek Jeter.

So, if you're Yankee management, which of these kids would you want replacing Jeter?

Straight from the Baseball America 2009 Prospect Handbook

Carmen Angelini? He's #1 on the depth chart. Good, right? Well, he's playing for low-A Charleston right now and has made an error in all but three games this season. It's gone from amusing, to worrying, to worrying and vaguely amusing. Angelini's still young-born in 1988-but even Jesus Montero was not this much of a defensive ornamental fountain last year.

Garrison Lassiter? He's #2, and also at Low A. He's putting together a nice average...but I repeat: he's at Low A.

Eduardo Nuñez is at AA, and is hitting .258. The season's still young and anything can happen-kid is still young-but someone hitting .258 at AA does not a Derek Jeter replacement portend.

Fourth on the depth chart is the guy currently wasting away on the Yankee bench: Ramiro Peña. Peña's certainly got the glove for the position, but unless he starts playing every day, his bat won't get the chance to develop like it should. For the moment, he's the most likable of all the guys listed here.

Now, I should be very clear about this: there is no replacing Derek Jeter.

Jeter's the guy whose name you utter when you are talking Yankee greats: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle, Mattingly, Jeter.

They may-I repeat MAY-one day replace his production, and they can certainly replace his defense, but in terms of other intangibles, it's not possible.

So in that regard, the Yankees would be foolish if they were trying to find someone that can replace Jeter as Captain.

They still, however, need to replace Jeter as shortstop and right now the options aren't too appealing.

Granted, it's still early and the young guys have a lot of developing left to do.

The Yankees could decide to use some of their overstocked pitching talent to pursue a trade, but any other GM worth his (or her) salt will probably up the price considerably.

The Yankees could sign a free agent. The list is here. It's not a very promising list. Most teams will do anything to keep their SS worth their salt since it's such a thin position. José Reyes is probably the best on the list and he's a franchise player for the Mets.

The Yankees could-and probably will-resign Jeter, though that might be their worst option. If his glove won't play at shortstop, the only other realistic option is DH-which his bat can't really carry in the American League, especially if the other option is (and it probably will be) Jorge Posada.

For 2009 at least, Jeter remains the Yankee shortstop and the Yankee captain, but while possible heirs to Mariano Rivera (Mark Melancon), Jorge Posada (Jesus Montero/Austin Romine) and Andy Pettitte (Joba Chamberlain/Phil Hughes/Take your pick) are at least beginning to emerge from the shadows, Jeter's situation is much murkier.

If the Yankees do not already have a plan in place for November 2010, they need to figure one oout.

The sooner, the better.