Derek Jeter has given everything he possibly could to the New York Yankees since taking over as the everyday shortstop in 1996. He is an icon for a franchise that has no shortage of legendary figures, with the freedom to do anything he wants.
But the reality of the situation as it stands on June 24, 2013 is that Jeter is 38 years old and still trying to make his way back from two significant ankle injuries in the last eight months. He hasn't played since Game 1 of the American League Championship Series in October.
Despite a surprising fast start from the team, the Yankees (41-34) have a lot of big decisions to make in the coming weeks and months with Jeter and, in case you forgot about his existence, Alex Rodriguez.
While A-Rod has a whole different set of problems on his plate, in addition to the rehab he is going through right now, Jeter appears closer to making a return around the beginning of the season's second half.
Jayson Nix, who has been manning shortstop in Jeter's absence, is quoted in Martin's piece as saying that Jeter "looked like he did before he got hurt. He definitely looked a lot better than in the spring" taking ground balls.
While there are more than a few jokes to be made about Jeter's defense, the more important baseball story is that the Captain is making progress on his journey back to the field.
This also presents the Yankees with an opportunity to make a move that will make them stronger at the top of the lineup and add more depth to a starting nine that, quite frankly, needs a lot of help right now.
Simply put, even though Jeter's slot in the leadoff spot would appear to be waiting for him when he returns, especially when you consider how likely the Yankees are to acquiesce to anything he wants, it would be in their best interest to keep things the way they are right now.
That doesn't mean the Yankees bench Jeter when he returns. But they keep Brett Gardner at the top of the order to start games.
Gardner is a player a lot like Jeter with the bat, especially at this stage of Jeter's career. Neither player is going to walk a ton, but both put the bat on the ball enough to keep their strikeout totals down and give themselves a chance to reach base.
The difference is, particularly with the uncertainty about Jeter's ankles, that Gardner has the kind of speed you look for in a top-of-the-order hitter. He is able to beat out bunts and infield hits, while also showing a little more pop this season than he has in recent years. His six home runs are just one shy of his career high set in 2011.
Right now Gardner has a slash line of .287/.349/.444 in 286 at-bats. If that holds the rest of the season, his .793 OPS would be higher than any of Jeter's single-season totals since 2009.
Plus, despite Jeter's ability to put the bat on the ball, he has turned into a singles hitter in recent years. He hasn't slugged over .430 since 2009. His power numbers were saved last season thanks to a stretch in August where he hit six home runs in 15 games.
Projecting Gardner's current stats out over the course of 162 games, he would hit 37 doubles, 11 triples and 13 home runs for a total of 61 extra-base hits. Jeter hasn't amassed a total that high since 2004.
There are signs that Gardner could regress as the season wears on. His BABIP is currently .347, 24 points higher than his career mark, and his walk rate of 8.4 percent and strikeout rate of 19.4 percent (per Fangraphs) would be the worst of his career over a full season.
Gardner is better as the leadoff hitter, setting the table for the likes of Robinson Cano and, assuming they return healthy, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez to drive him in.
That leaves Jeter in a bit of a lurch. The natural solution would be to hit him second, since there is an idea that you should have a hitter in that spot great at handling the bat and putting the ball in play.
In an ideal scenario, as Keith Law broke down for ESPN (Insiders only) in a topic that evolved from a discussion about Joey Votto to a bigger picture, you want to bat your best hitter second. That's because of the added value of extra plate appearances over the course of a season and the added run-scoring potential with your No. 2 hitter ahead of Nos. 3 or 4 or 5, etc.
With that particular idea, Cano should be hitting second for the Yankees since he is, by far, their best hitter. But given Joe Girardi's approach to managing, as well as the industry's general consensus that your best hitter should hit third, there is no way Cano moves from his spot.
Plus, as has been well-documented on every baseball site since spring training, the Yankees are a different team this year than the one we have gotten accustomed to. They aren't a lineup filled with superstars capable of mashing whenever they want.
Take the lineup they used on Sunday against the Rays. Ichiro and his .652 OPS was hitting second. Travis Hafner, who has a .321 on-base and .429 slugging percentage, hit fourth. He was followed by Lyle Overbay, Zoilo Almonte, Nix, David Adams and Chris Stewart.
With Gardner in the leadoff spot and Cano in the three hole, the best spot for Jeter in this current Yankees lineup is in the No. 2 hole. He is going to give you more on-base production and better at-bats than the free-swinging Ichiro, and everyone else is basically at or slightly above a replacement-level player.
That's not an exaggeration, either. Using Fangraphs, the Nos. 4 through 9 hitters in the Yankee lineup from Sunday have a combined WAR of 1.5.
When Jeter returns, it is probably going to feel like the Yankees are adding the equivalent of Barry Bonds at his peak a decade ago. That is how bad this lineup is right now.
Gardner is the best leadoff man for this team right now. His performance should keep him in that spot now and in the future.
Jeter will get his hero's welcome upon returning, but it shouldn't be as the leadoff hitter for the New York Yankees. It should come just a bit later, where he can punch singles through the right side of the infield, allowing Gardner to go from first to third, like Jeter has done for so many years.
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