And so our long national nightmare continues.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who badly injured his ankle at the end of last year's American League Championship series, spent most of spring training rehabbing the injury with optimism. Then he was unable to make it back in time for Opening Day. Now he's on the shelf until at least the All-Star Break.
That leaves New York, currently in second place in the American League East, with a choice: do they continue with Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix sharing the shortstop assignment, or do they make a move to upgrade at the position?
It's not a question that can be answered in a vacuum. For one, Jeter is not the only player the Yankees have on the disabled list: 1B Mark Teixeira and CF Curtis Granderson joined him before the season began, and though it appears both of them should return before Jeter, they're as susceptible as he is to setbacks in their rehab and recovery. Making a substantial move outside of the organization to bolster the middle infield would likely come at the opportunity cost of being able to reinforce the infield corners or the outfield with anything but journeyman fodder. That's because if the Yankees move to upgrade at shortstop with a player on another major league roster, they'll need to spend assets -- both in money and talent -- to acquire him, especially since upper-level management in New York has shown a decided proclivity for veterans with name recognition when making moves like these for reasons unrelated to production on the baseball field. If that weren't the case then neither Ichiro Suzuki nor Vernon Wells would be Yankees right now.
Wells, as most everyone who follows a team in the same division as the Yankees suspected would happen, has transformed himself from a punchline back into the kind of player who earned a $25 million a year contract in the first place, at least for the time being. Suzuki, who had a similarly torrid start to his career as a Yankee after last season's trade deadline, has been far less effective at the plate. If Wells continues to hit like he's hitting right now, of course, the outfield problem will have more or less taken care of itself, and finding someone to handle shortstop duties on a full time basis while Jeter recovers may end up taking care of the Yankees' issues at the corners as well.
Consider, for instance, Alex Gonzalez of the Milwaukee Brewers. The veteran middle infielder should be available, considering the team's renewed love affair with Yuniesky Betancourt has forced Gonzalez off of first base, which was already a farcical affair considering Gonzalez has a career OPS under .700. He certainly fits the Yankee stereotypes -- Gonzalez turned 36 in February -- and while he somehow convinced the Brewers to commit $4.5 million to him this year, next year, the last in his contract, pays him only $1.5 million. Gonzalez can also handle third base serviceably well, which would allow the Yankees to move Youkilis to first base and finally designate Lyle Overbay for assignment.
It's really a tossup whether Eduardo Nunez is a better fit at shortstop or third base. Nunez's longstanding defensive problems mostly concern being able to throw the ball and have it go where he wants, and there's some early indications that a complete overhaul of his throwing mechanics have helped him with that -- but with Jeter's return, Gonzalez could easily move over to third as a semi-regular. Gonzalez actually has had a better bat recently than the other non-Nunez middle infielder on the roster, Jayson Nix; in fact, the only thing Nix has over virtually any other credible journeyman in the game is that the Yankees don't have to pay anything additional to acquire him.
There are a number of other players like Gonzalez out there bouncing around the major leagues; John McDonald of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Mike Aviles of the Cleveland Indians would also fit the ticket, though the Indians might be too attached to Aviles at the moment to trade him. Since shortstop is Jeter's as soon as he is healthy again, regardless of how well any interim replacement is playing, it makes no real sense to spend the money or talent necessary to get anyone better, and quality shortstops are in short enough supply around the majors that very few players with ceilings higher than a utility role will be available.
The other option, of course, is to just throw the job at Nunez and Nix and wait. Nunez will be the regular there for the foreseeable future, with Nix getting starts on maintenance days, and in situations like last week's, during the series between the Orioles and Yankees, when Nunez left the game after being hit by a pitch. The rest of the time he'll get starts at third and occasionally first base. Nunez is no wizard at shortstop, but the Yankees have gotten by with a butcher there for the better part of two decades now. Nunez has enough range to play the position and when he makes mistakes, they're often concentration errors, which one would hope would improve with regular playing time. Most importantly he, like Nix, is already on the team and costs nothing to acquire. While Gonzalez might be a slight upgrade in the field and perhaps at the plate, he's under contract to another organization and would cost at least a fringe prospect to acquire. He is also pricier than Nunez, who is still fully under Yankee control. And while I have every confidence in the world that if the Yankees did trade for Alex Gonzalez or whomever he'd immediately put together a career year, that sort of frustrated superstition is not generally how teams make their front office decisions.*
In the end, this is probably the road the Yankees will walk, unless Nunez suffers a long term injury himself. It's far from ideal, but his production at the plate should be around league average for the position, and there aren't any issues with benching him or moving him off the position when Jeter returns. If Nunez goes down for any substantial length of time, however, I'd expect to see trade talks begin immediately. Despite all the injuries, the Yankees are still in good position to win the AL East, but the division is close enough that having to play Nix every day at short for a substantial portion of the season might deal their chances a noticeable blow.
And hey, look at it this way: if New York is forced to trade for a marginal player just to keep the team's head above water, acquiring Gonzalez might finally give Yankees fans a third baseman named Alex whose hitting is worth booing.
*May not apply to the Minnesota Twins.