NEW YORK – Joe Girardi didn't say no. Joe Torre would have.
Now, this is not to compare Girardi and Torre, not in a mano-a-mano fashion at least, but one that deals with today's reality in the New York Yankees universe: Suggestions that Alex Rodriguez move to shortstop if the strained left quadriceps that forced Derek Jeter out of a game Monday lingers.
"There's a lot of different scenarios we'll talk about as a club and decide what we're going to do," Girardi said, and even though there was little substance to his words, it felt frighteningly candid – and, considering the other options, a rather sensible idea. Because under Torre's watch, no matter how damaging to the Yankees in the short or long term, he wouldn't dare place someone of consequence at Jeter's position for fear of upsetting the captain's chi.
Only if the injury doesn't heal – Jeter thinks it'll take a day or two, Girardi closer to a week and both hope he can avoid the disabled list – might the sentiment change, and even then it would be a hard sell. And that's an important point to discuss, particularly months after a number of studies concluded that Jeter is among, if not the, worst-fielding shortstop in the major leagues.
One large study, conducted at the Wharton Business School, uses a metric – a statistic-based analysis – to show how Jeter was the pits from 2002-05 and Rodriguez was among the best shortstops. Its veracity is questionable, considering it named the positively slothful Ken Harvey as its first-base representative.
Not nearly as dubious is John Dewan's book, "The Fielding Bible", in which Dewan culls data from every play and rates players on a plus-minus scale – plus for making a play that at least one of his peers had missed, and minus for the opposite. It is the new standard for fielding statistics, and in the past three years, Jeter is minus-90, the second-worst number in all of baseball, better only than Manny Ramirez's minus-109.
Is that damning enough to even entertain alternates at the position of the most beloved Yankee of the past two decades? Probably not, even though the Yankees sure have a built-in excuse if they want to see whether a bulkier, older A-Rod can cut it at shortstop.
It doesn't help that Jeter's legs, his springboards in the field, are causing him such trouble. In the bottom of the first inning Monday with a runner on first base against Tampa Bay, Jeter slapped a ground ball at the third baseman and lurched as much as ran down the line. He beat the double-play throw, spent another half-inning in the field and left before the third inning.
"He's always been a tough kid, and he wants to be out there," Girardi said. "No matter how his body feels, he wants to be out there. But you know, with these conditions, you jeopardize really hurting yourself badly, and we don't want that, because we can't afford to miss him for a long time."
Jeter can still hit. He proves that every year, his inside-out stroke shooting balls to right field and reinforcing his opportunism. Jeter gets the loudest cheers at Yankee Stadium, and he didn't earn them only by smiling into a camera.
Ultimately, such deification comes to roost, and to think the 33-year-old Jeter, with more than 12 seasons at the most demanding position, wants to continue playing shortstop deep into the decade is troublesome. Try center field. Settle at first base. Anything to keep him upright, which he has managed to stay with stunning regularity thus far.
Jeter first felt a twinge in his quad during the Yankees' Sunday game and iced it before Monday's game. That didn't help, and Jeter ended up in an MRI tube to rule out extensive damage. Doctors found a low-level strain, nothing like in 2001, when Jeter missed Opening Day because of his right quad.
"That was worse," Jeter said. "This is a mild strain, from what I was told. The other one was a lot worse than that. It was something you could feel moving your leg, period. This one is more when I put for a little effort. I really start running before I feel it."
Soon after he felt it, Jeter excused himself. Wilson Betemit moved from first base to shortstop. Betemit, at 230 pounds, plays the position with all the agility of a cast-iron skillet. He's not the answer.
Aside from Betemit and A-Rod, there's not another person on the Yankees' active roster who can play shortstop. They could call up rookie Alberto Gonzalez, who is on the team's 40-man roster, or Cody Ransom, who would require a roster move but bring more experience. Or, of course, they could put A-Rod at short and use Morgan Ensberg, a natural third baseman, to fill in.
Like Girardi said, plenty of scenarios.
If Jeter heals slowly, it could get ugly, as quad strains tend to hang around like freeloaders. Mark Teixeira spent five weeks on the DL with one last season. Bengie Molina hobbled around most of spring. Victor Martinez missed a dozen games last year.
Jeter will sacrifice his first Tuesday afternoon. As much as he wants to play, Jeter recognizes Girardi runs a different ship than Torre did. When Girardi says no, he means it, and while he gladly massages egos, he also keeps them in check.
So for now it falls on Betemit, a natural shortstop who outgrew the position about 40 pounds ago. He'll stand in the most trafficked position on the field, and he'll replace a no-doubt Hall of Famer, and he'll try to swim.
Rodriguez will stand next to him. He last played shortstop full time in 2003. Five years is a long time. And still, the idea just won't die. It's so crazy it just might work, and weird as it sounds, that's the last thing the Yankees need.
- Joe Girardi
- Joe Torre