The 20-year-old shortstop, considered the gem of the club's farm system since he was selected sixth overall in the June 1992 free-agent draft, was promoted from Triple-A Columbus and arrived here Sunday night. He started last night against the Mariners, batting ninth, and though they may deny it, the Yankees have pinned their hopes on his immediate success.
"I told him to trust his skills and don't give the opposition too much credit," manager Buck Showalter said. "He's a mature young man for his age and he's done well at every level. We'll see how he does at this one."
The Yankees really didn't have much of a choice. With veteran shortstop Tony Fernandez on the 15-day disabled list with a pulled muscle in his rib cage and Pat Kelly leaning in that direction with a sprained left wrist, the team's middle infield had become a defensive minefield. The offense, meanwhile, has been horrendous as well. The Yankees hit .160 during the first six games of this nine-game swing, averaging 1.7 runs.
Jeter, named the Minor League Player of the Year by four publications, should provide help in both areas, especially on the offensive end. He was batting .354 with 18 RBIs and eight stolen bases for the Clippers, and hit .377 for Double-A Albany last season before being promoted after 34 games to Columbus. Jeter led the International League in hits (62), doubles (13) and triples (five), was third in runs and batting average and was fourth in on-base percentage and extra-base hits. The rookie shortstop, who mostly batted leadoff for the Clippers, also had a 17-game hitting streak.
"I'm ready to step in and play and do what I've been doing," Jeter said. "I want to keep doing what I did down there. It's really the same game, it's still baseball. I'm not going to try to do anything extra or too much."
The Yankees were concerned when Jeter was forced to sit out some of the Arizona League season last year with a mild inflammation of his right shoulder, slowing his progress. Red flags went up again when he made seven errors during his first 19 games with Columbus this season. But Jeter has shown steady improvement defensively, committing five errors in his last 27 games. At this point, the Yankees are willing to take a chance, if only to get his bat in the lineup.
"I think I improved everything," Jeter said. "Defensively and offensively."
By promoting Jeter, the Yankees are setting themselves up for some difficult decisions down the road. Fernandez is scheduled to come off the DL Monday, and even if he needs more time, he will be healthy eventually, and that will put the squeeze on the shortstop position. Showalter had said he was reluctant to bring up Jeter if he could not play him every day, but also maintains that Fernandez is the team's starting shortstop. It is a choice the manager does not want to contemplate at the moment.
"That's something that will happen down the road," Showalter said. "We'll address that when it happens. We look forward to having Tony back and we think Derek can make us a better club."
Jeter is the ninth No. 1 pick since the draft's inception in 1965 to appear for the Yankees and the first since 1978 draftee Rex Hudler made his major-league debut in 1984. Some have said the club should have called up Jeter sooner, especially with their recent woes, and that signing Fernandez to a two-year contract put the shortstop phenom on the back burner longer than necessary. But Jeter has no problem with the way his career has been handled to this point.
"They're not going to give someone a shortstop job," Jeter said. "It's something you have to earn."