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Have the Yankees been better off without Derek Jeter?

Derek Jeter works out at the Yankees' spring

Derek Jeter works out at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa, Fla. Photo Credit: Carrie Pratt

The 2003 Yankees opened their season with Mariano Rivera on the disabled list, and Derek Jeter dislocated his left shoulder on Opening Night. Suddenly, the Yankees were without their two icons.

They wound up stunning the baseball world by going 20-6 without Rivera and 25-11 without Jeter and, connecting the two dots, 19-6 with both Rivera and Jeter sidelined.

And not one rational person in the world thought, "Hey, the Yankees are better off without these guys!" Of course they weren't. Wacky things can occur in small sample sizes. Erick Almonte put up a could've-been-worse .337 OBP and .370 SLG as Jeter's replacement at shortstop, then played in just three more major-league games that year and didn't sniff the big leagues again until this season, with Milwaukee.

Juan Acevedo, Rivera's replacement, converted all five of his save opportunities; the Yankees were outscoring their opponents so thoroughly 167-94 over 26 games, an average victory of 6.4 to 3.6)  that they barely needed their closer. The Yankees released Acevedo in June, and Acevedo didn't pitch in the majors again after '03 (Toronto picked him up for the rest of that season).

Now we jump ahead, finally, to 2011. The Yankees won again last night, and they're now 11-3 since placing Jeter on the disabled list. Which begs the question, once more: Are the Yankees a better team without Jeter?

The simple answer is yes. The nuanced answer is, if Joe Girardi simply lowers Jeter in the lineup upon his return, as soon as Monday in Cleveland, then the disparity is less prominent.

Jeter has a brutal .324 OBP and .324 SLG in 293 plate apperances this season, and that's coming off last year's better but still underwhelming .340 OBP and .370 SLG in 739 plate appearances. His overall defense, whether you're a "I use my eyes" type or an advanced statistical analysis type, is slightly below average. Sing it with me now: Great hands, poor range.

Eduardo Nunez, Jeter's replacement at shortstop (he has started all 14 games), has a .333 OBP and .383 SLG in this time span. I'm not intelligent enough to know how to get his defensive ratings for this period, but for the season, he ranks worse than Jeter in the statistical measures. Sing it with me now: Terrible hands, good range.

The real edge comes when you look at the leadoff situation. Jeter has a .336 OBP and .345 SLG as a leadoff hitter this season. Brett Gardner is worse overall .300 OBP and .321 SLG - but that largely can be attributed to his putrid April. Since Jeter went down, Gardner has a .389 OBP and .404 SLG, which are more in line with his entire 2010 season.

Nick Swisher, leading off against lefties in Jeter's absence, has a .526 OBP and .462 SLG in 19 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter. Those numbers obviously would drop with more exposure, but there's little disputing that Swisher is a better hitter than Jeter at this juncture.

Then again, all eight of the Yankees' other everyday players are better hitters than Jeter at this juncture. It doesn't matter whether you want to use wOBA or OPS+, or 2010 or 2011. We're talking very significant sample sizes.

When you use FanGraphs to rank major-league shortstops (minimum 200 plate appearances) by wOBA, you see that Jeter ranks 18th in the major leagues. Yeesh. But Jeter did well for himself signing with the Yankees, because they have a lineup that can protect him. That can highlight his assets (decent defense, generally smart play) and overcome his liabilities (offense). 

That's assuming, of course, that Girardi drops Jeter in the lineup, something Girardi says he won't do immediately upon Jeter's return. 

That's a mistake. Not only for the team, but also for Jeter's legacy itself. If he and Girardi want to make this question disappear, the one about whether the Yankees are better off without him, the best approach is make the Yankees better with Jeter around by diminishing his impact.

-- Here's my column off last night's game, discussing the Yankees' pitching situation and why they'll continue to look for re-enforcements on the trade market. Last year, remember, the Yankees - once the Cliff Lee trade fell through - didn't seriously explore deals for Dan Haren or Roy Oswalt, both of whom came on the market late, because they felt very good about their starting rotation.

If pitchers of that caliber become available this year, I'd expect the Yankees to be more aggressive. Joel Sherman of The New York Post mentioned two interesting possibilities the other day - the Cubs' Matt Garza and Florida's Anibal Sanchez.

-- Have a great day.

 

 

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