Even if he returns from his broken ankle, Derek Jeter
will play fewer games than any season of his career, and will be 39 in June. (AP)
The Yankees, and baseball in general, will get an extended preview of life without Derek Jeter this season. On Thursday afternoon New York's general manager, Brian Cashman, announced that Jeter has a new crack in his previously healed left ankle and won't return until after the All-Star break.
The discovery of the new injury comes after Jeter made an unscheduled visit to ankle specialist Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte on Thursday after shutting down his workouts last weekend and resuming a reduced workload earlier in the week. Jeter fractured the ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Tigers last October, had surgery Oct. 20 and hoped to return first by Opening Day then by early May, but the even the latter seemed increasingly unlikely after the setbacks in his rehabilitation.
Jeter reported that his ankle was fully healed after a visit to see Anderson on March 7. If so, he is now dealing with a new injury in the same spot, though surely one that is in some way related to a weakness created by the previous fracture and possibly by Jeter's own inability to pace himself during his rehabilitation as well. Indeed, there's ample reason to believe that Jeter initially hurt his ankle not in the Division Series but a month earlier, on Sept. 12, when he fouled a ball off the joint. Jeter was diagnosed with a bone bruise after that game, but, though clearly hobbled, he played the next four games before taking two days off, one on a scheduled off day, and skipped just the one game until his ankle finally gave out on Oct. 13.
Given Jeter's pattern of denial regarding injuries -- his stock answer, which has become something between a catchphrase and a punchline among the team's beat writers, is "I'm fine, I'll play tomorrow" -- it's legitimate to wonder if Jeter's determination to return ahead of the schedule his body would permit has backfired on the Yankee captain, who will now be 39 before he plays in another major league game. If so, it's a bitter irony in that playing through injury can just as often be a selfish act despite the team-first manner in which it is typically portrayed.
Thus far, New York has survived without Jeter, going 8-5 on the season, but they have done that despite the performance of their shortstops, Eduardo Nuñez and Jayson Nix, who have hit a combined .233/.280/.326, which translates to an adjusted OPS just 70 percent of league average for the position. Jeter's extended absence now locks Nuñez into the position, where his defense has proven to be suspect in the past. Still, Nuñez's track record, as well as the scouting reports on the 25-year-old, suggests he can carry the position offensively. Thus far, in 522 career major league plate appearances, including his slow start to this season, Nuñez has hit .271/.318/.378 (superior to the 2012 major league average at the position of .257/.310/.378) and stolen 39 bases at an 81 percent success rate. Nuñez has long been projected as Jeter's eventual replacement at the position, and he and the team will now get a good three months in which to determine if he is indeed suited for that role.
The Yankees won't look outside the organization for a replacement for Jeter, who holds a $9.5 million player option for next year but is in the last guaranteed year of his contract, in part because no such player exists. Short of trying to pry someone like Jurickson Profar loose from the Rangers, a move which would cost them the farm, if Texas was even willing to entertain it, Nuñez would seem to have as much upside as any outside alternative. The dearth of shortstop options league wide is one reason that Jeter has been so incredibly valuable to the Yankees over the last 17 seasons, and could well prove Nuñez even more valuable than his middling batting line above might suggest.
The biggest question with regards to Nuñez, again ironically, is his play in the field. Nuñez has the tools to be an above-average shortstop, but thus far he has proven erratic to the point that New York has hesitated to use him in the field in big games (indeed, it was Nix who started the first playoff game after Jeter's injury). In the wake of Thursday's news, however, the Yankees can no longer hesitate.