Yankees should probably just leave Jeter at short

February, 5, 2009
By all accounts the Yankees, as much money as they've spent this winter, still have a couple of weaknesses: middle relief and center field. The former isn't something they can fix with one move, but Christina Kahrl suggests that the Yankees could easily fix the latter. All they have to do is shift Derek Jeter to center field and sign free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera … which of course would have the added benefit of vastly improving the Yankees' infield defense. Kahrl:

    Obviously, getting Jeter's buy-in is a real-world problem for a team with a real-world need for a center fielder, because the margins are too thin in the tough AL East for the Yankees to really rely on the wrong Cabrera in the lineup. Crying over last year's spilled Melky won't help you catch up to the Rays and Red Sox, but signing Orlando Cabrera, providing the team with a useful-enough hitter and a slick-fielding asset at short could make a small but important difference to a bad defensive ballclub. Last season's Yankees ranked 25th in the major leagues in Defensive Efficiency (their ability to convert balls in play into outs) and Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and no positions see more chances than the middle infield.

    Swapping Jeter out at short to address the team's need for a center fielder would be the sort of win/win move that can let the Yankees return to the top of the standings while breaking in their new stadium, and it does nothing to damage the Captain's place in franchise history. If Yount or Ripken, MVP winners and top stars in their day, could agree to help their teams and themselves to make these switches, you need to ask yourself why Jeter should be any different, especially when the need has gone from debatable to obvious.

Inspired by Kahrl's suggestion, Driveline Mechanics' David Golebiewski has run through all the math and concludes:

    Spending the gross domestic product of some small countries on free agents this offseason, the Yankees are obviously going "all-in" and are desperate to return to the playoffs. Setting aside nostalgia by signing O-Cab and shifting The Captain to center might be a wildly unpopular move, but it's difficult to envision a scenario where such an alignment doesn't improve the club. In a division that figures to be historically great next season (Boston and Tampa Bay aren't going away anytime soon), the Bombers can ill-afford to leave any stones unturned in terms of improving their chances of making the playoffs.

Well, yes. It's true that the Yankees should try to win as many games as possible. But after running through all the math, Golebiewski concludes that swapping Derek/Melky for Orlando/Derek would add "nearly a win" if Jeter's a "lousy" center fielder, and "nearer two wins" if Jeter's "only kind of bad in center."

There are a great number of variables in this equation, and there's another that has not been included yet: Brett Gardner. Granted, Gardner was terrible as a New York Yankee last season. But as a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankee, he posted a .414 on-base percentage. He's got a .389 career OBP in the minors. Gardner is also exceptionally fast, can steal a base and cover some serious ground in center field (his defensive stats last season were fantastic).

My guess is that if we add Gardner to our equation -- if we assume he shares center field with Cabrera, and even gets two-thirds of the playing time -- then the benefit of adding Orlando Cabrera and moving Derek Jeter drops to something like zero wins. In which case it's not worth doing … unless the real point isn't to win games, but rather to get Derek Jeter into center field for good. Which might make sense, except the Yankees' No. 1 prospect is actually a center fielder named Austin Jackson, who figures to take over the position in 2010.

Jeter's contract runs through 2010. Given the personnel at hand, the Yankees should probably just leave him at shortstop this season and probably next, and then let him go.


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