Time to look for Jeter's replacement

TAMPA, Fla. -- The time has come for the New York Yankees to stop waiting for Derek Jeter's return -- and start searching for Derek Jeter's replacement.

There is no more avoiding that fact, now that Jeter has had another setback, his second in a week, this one coming the morning after four innocuous at-bats in a minor league game in which he did little more than jog to first base.

Clearly, Derek Jeter can barely get through the most basic of baseball drills without suffering enough pain in his surgically mended left ankle to force him to the sideline every time he tries to play.

Just as clearly, Eduardo Nunez, for all his offensive gifts, is not the long-term answer at shortstop for the Yankees, even if it all but guaranteed he will be holding down Derek Jeter's position on Opening Day.

The odds are it will be a long time, if ever again, before Jeter's 38-year-old body is able to weather the demands of playing shortstop at the major league level on a daily basis.

And the Yankees' goal of having him on the field again by April 6 seems like a longshot at best. In fact, no one -- not Jeter nor Brian Cashman nor the Yankees medical staff nor Dr. Robert Anderson, the foot and ankle specialist who performed the surgery on Jeter last October -- has any idea when Jeter will be back on the field, or how long he will be able to remain on the field once he does get there.

And the way you know this is simple: Every one of them assured us, with absolute certainty, that Jeter would be ready for Opening Day 2013 from the moment he was carried off the field in the wee hours of Oct. 14. That prognosis never changed, not when it was determined Jeter's ankle would, in fact, need to be held together with surgically inserted screws and a metal plate.

Some of this was a professional sports team's tendency to best-case its injuries, and a lot of this, no doubt, had to do with the well-documented toughness, durability and determination of Derek Jeter.

But now, the reality is apparent to everyone, even to Jeter. This is going to be a long and painful recovery and there are probably many setbacks yet to come.

It's a pretty good bet Jeter won't come close to playing the 135 games he played at shortstop last year. It's probably a better bet he'll play something like half that amount, with a bunch of DH days sprinkled in. And there's always the possibility that he won't play at all.

Even in a best-case scenario, what had been regarded as a given –- that Jeter would either exercise his option to play the 2014 season, or reject it and negotiate a new, longer-term deal with the Yankees – is very much in doubt.

So what are the Yankees to do? They knew that at some point, they would need to replace Jeter, and until last year, when they were forced to send him to the minors in the hopes he would actually learn to play the position, the Yankees thought Nunez would succeed Jeter at shortstop.

But now, it's time for Plan B.

Hindsight, of course, is the currency of the columnist and second-guessing our stock in trade, but in hindsight, it seems as if the Yankees missed two golden opportunities after Jeter got hurt: First, Jose Reyes got traded from the Marlins to the Blue Jays for, among others, Yunel Escobar, and then Escobar got traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for a minor league shortstop named Derek Dietrich.

At 30 years old, either one would have served the Yankees' purposes for the foreseeable future, but it's too late now. Reyes is signed through 2017 and the Rays have options on Escobar for the 2014 and 2015 seasons at an affordable $5 million per.

Maybe the Yankees should have removed the name "Derek Jeter" from the equation and looked at the likelihood of a 38-year-old shortstop bouncing back quickly from a severely broken ankle back in October right when it happened.

Now, their options for the immediate future seem severely limited. The kind of players the Yankees would want to succeed Jeter -- Asdrubal Cabrera, Elvis Andrus, even the injured Hanley Ramirez -- will not be available until after the 2014 season. Starlin Castro, the young Chicago Cubs star, is tied up until 2019.

And the caliber of shortstops who are, or could be available sooner, are nowhere near the quality it will take to replace Derek Jeter on even a short-term basis. Jhonny Peralta could be available after the 2013 season. Guys such as Yuniesky Betancourt and Elliot Johnson might shake loose by the end of spring training.

And next year's potential free-agent crop is nothing to get excited over: Jason Bartlett, Ronny Cedeno, Stephen Drew, Alex Gonzalez, Marco Scutaro.

If nothing else, it shows you how hard it is to acquire a good shortstop in this league, let alone replace a Derek Jeter.

Still, the Yankees are going to have to sooner or later, and by now, it is obvious it will be sooner rather than later.

The time for the Yankees to start looking is now, although in many ways, it may already be too late.