For Yankees, benching Derek Jeter would hurt more than help
Between July 6 and and July 31, the club bolstered its battered roster by acquiring a quartet of players who have at various points in their careers toed the line between above-average and star: pitcher Brandon McCarthy and infielders Chase Headley, Martin Prado and Stephen Drew. Still, New York has gone just 18-17 since the non-waiver trade deadline, and enters play on Wednesday a season-high 11 games behind the Orioles in the AL East, as well as 5 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot.
The Yankees' retiring captain, meanwhile, has remained their regular shortstop and No. 2 hitter despite some dismal numbers. Since Aug. 1, a span of 33 games, Jeter has batted .206 with a .488 OPS. While the low batting average represents an unfortunate new development in his final season — his average was as high as .280 on July 29 but is now down to .258 — the lack of power does not. Of the 109 players who have had at least 500 plate appearances this season, Jeter is dead last in extra-base hits, with 19. Since 1980, just seven men have received as many as Jeter's current 567 plate appearances and produced fewer doubles-or-better.
And his defense, as a 40-year-old shortstop with a rebuilt ankle? It has been about what you would expect from a 40-year-old shortstop with a rebuilt ankle.
This, of course, is not nearly the first time that Jeter has been rewarded not for his present or future contributions to the Yankees, but for his past ones. When he reached free agency after a 2010 season in which he'd batted .270 with the lowest OPS (.710) of his career, negotiations turned ugly when the front office initially insisted that it didn't want to compensate him for the player he used to be. The club soon caved, giving him a well-above-market three-year, $51 million deal that more or less worked out. Jeter had two more excellent seasons in him, including a 2012 in which he led the league in hits, before missing all but 17 games of '13 with various injuries.
Now, though, it seems clear that there will be no last rebound during Jeter's final month in baseball, only a further decline. That has led many to wonder, now that he has already been feted with a retirement ceremony in Yankee Stadium, if he should be pushed down the lineup or benched — or, even better, if he ought to step aside selflessly — as his club attempts its unlikely push for a wild-card spot. When you take a cold look at the numbers (again: a .488 OPS!), the idea makes some sense. But when you step back and consider the larger picture, it makes none at all.
For one thing, as manager Joe Girardi recently pointed out to Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, "It's not like we have a bunch of guys hitting .300." In fact, New York has none, and it also has no good option to replace Jeter at shortstop. Drew, who has played second base since being acquired from the Red Sox, and Brendan Ryan are defensively superior, but both have cause to be envious of Jeter's dreadful post-deadline offensive numbers. In his 30 games as a Yankee, Drew is hitting .140; in his 37 this year, Ryan is at .203. In fact, the four men besides Jeter who have played shortstop for the Yankees this year — Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte are the others — have combined to bat .150 when doing so.
Then there would be the psychic cost of uprooting Jeter during his farewell tour, which would be both enormous and real. From a strictly actuarial standpoint, the Yankees' strategy over the past few months does not appear to make much sense. Why bother adding all of these players (and in so doing sacrificing potential future assets, like power-hitting minor league catcher Peter O'Brien, who went to the Diamondbacks in the Prado deal) if you're going to insist on keeping a player at your most important position whose numbers suggest he shouldn't be in the lineup?
It's important to realize, though, that the Yankees' season was already more or less lost when they went on their moderate spending spree, largely because three of their best starting pitchers — Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova — were on the disabled list, and none of them were likely to return. Brian Cashman, the general manager, was chasing a very unlikely best-case scenario, one in which Drew, Headley and Prado jumpstarted a stalled offense and Jeter proved to have one last rejuvenation in him.
It was going to be that, or nothing; not surprisingly, the result has been the latter. According to Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds report, the Yankees' chance of reaching the Wild-Card Game now stands at an uninspiring 0.7 percent. It's inarguable that it would be worth embarrassing your greatest star, and alienating a certain portion of your fans, to chase odds like that. In fact, it was never worth it.
As an uncertain future lurks in front of them, the Yankees are doing exactly the right thing: continuing to put Jeter out there. New York should enjoy his presence and the gate receipts it inspires — attendance is up nearly 2,300 fans a game over last year — while it lasts.