The Yankees revealed today that Derek Jeter will be out until after the All-Star break after CT scans showed "a small crack in the area of the previous injury." It's odd how sometimes people focus on exactly the wrong things. When Jeter fractured his leg in game one of last October's ALCS, some did allow that an aging shortstop might not be guaranteed to come back easily from such a serious injury, but no one was saying we might never see him again. Conversely, when Alex Rodriguez's hip-labrum surgery was followed by his name appearing in the Biogenesis records, suddenly the column tree bloomed with a million words on how he wouldn't be coming back. Now, it's possible that Rodriguez will be back on a major-league playing field before Jeter is.
The response to Jeter's injury always had a whistling-past-the-graveyard quality to it, like Jeter was Frosty the Snowman. "Frosty the snow man/Had to hurry on his way/But he waved goodbye saying/"Don't you cry, I'll be back again someday." Gripped by pessimistic premonitions, I thought it might be more like Frosty the Cat, a beautiful alabaster feline I used to own. Frosty got peritonitis and died, and although "someday" is open-ended, it has been over 20 years now and he still hasn't come back -- and I'm short the magical Montgomery Biscuits cap I buried him in. Frosty -- cat or snowman -- always seemed like a pernicious lie we tell to children about mortality, because it's too damned hard to say, "Look, you idiot, he's bleeping melted. Hat or no hat, you don't come back from that."
My other thought was of Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, aptly described by Bill James as "the 20-year glove man." This was almost 80 years and a thousand advances in sports medicine ago, but in spring training 1934, the 42-year-old Maranville suffered a severely broken ankle when he slid into the catcher on a play at the plate. He missed the entire season, then tried to come back in 1935 and was released after playing in 23 games. Again, I don't mean to make a direct comparison to Jeter, who is younger and has access to rehab tools other than bourbon, except to say that Maranville also broke his leg in 1925. He came back from that one just fine, so: severe injury at 33, no problem; severe injury at 42, problem.
Far more recently, shortstop Stephen Drew fractured his ankle in July 2011, and as my SBN colleague Marc Normandin points out, it took him more than a year to recover some semblance of his old defensive form. He was about 10 years younger than Jeter was when the latter had his injury.
I'm entirely willing to expand that generalization to include a going-on-39 Jeter, even though I'm also willing to stipulate that better conditioning and nutrition almost certainly means that Jeter's 39 is probably, in real terms, even younger than Maranville's 42 than the mere numerical difference would suggest. However, there are certain things modern medicine can't do as of yet, like take a guy who had a poor first step to begin with, break his ankle, and then restore it in such a way that he has even the same subpar mobility he had before.
Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports
Jeter's never-ending rehab got longer this week. First, we learned he is not close to appearing in any games, and that the Yankees had lightened his workload. In other words, he was getting further away, not closer. Then came the injury announced today. Meanwhile, the Yankees are dead last in the majors in defensive efficiency (both regular-flavor and park-adjusted variety). That means that when an opposing hitter puts the ball in play, they are less likely than 29 other teams to pick it up and turn it into an out. It's very early, and perhaps this is just one of those small-sample matters that get so much attention at this time of year, but it's also possible that the Yankees defense just isn't very good.
The last thing a porous defense needs is the addition of a shortstop pushing 40 who can't really field the position anymore but is in the lineup for sentimental reasons. Eduardo Nunez is a far cry from Ozzie Smith, but watching him in the few games he's managed to play this year, it's clear that he has greater range than Jeter does. That's not at all surprising -- very few shortstops have been allowed to play regularly at Jeter's age precisely because old guys do not have range. In fact, you can construct a nice syllogism out of the reasons that even if Jeter does get back to the majors after the All-Star break, he is unlikely to ever again be a regular shortstop:
1. Old guys don't have range.
2. Injuries lead to decreased range.
3. Jeter didn't have much range in the first place.
4. An old, post-injury Jeter is going to have even less range than before.
What does that leave the Yankees and Jeter? Well, here's the other thing about Jeter: He doesn't really hit right-handers anymore. He averaged .294 of mostly singles against them last year, but that was his best in three years -- he had hit just .261/.321/.327 against them from 2010-2011. He's still quite vital against left-handers, hitting .344/.403/.515 against them from 2010 through 2012. Even without this latest injury, that's likely what the Yankees have to look forward to in whatever major league playing time Jeter has left -- a platoon partner for Travis Hafner. That doesn't mean they won't try it the other way if given any choice in the matter, but the ankle might not allow for that much flexibility -- pun intended.
That is, of course, speculation, but it seems to me that it's based on a reasonable set of assumptions -- that a player with poor range who is injured is not going to increase that range and likely will see it decrease. Further, that the Yankees, likely to be in the midst of a tight competition for a postseason spot, won't be able to afford the difference in defense between a 26-year-old Nunez and a gimpy, 39-year-old Jeter.
When Joe DiMaggio reached this point in his career, he retired. It seems like Mariano Rivera is going to retire before he reaches that point. Jeter is likely already there, he just hasn't realized it yet. To be continued -- but thanks to this latest injury, not for a long, long while.