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Jeter's next position is a serious debate

4/1/2010

Whenever Yankees general manager Brian Cashman conferences with his staff to prepare the team's offer to shortstop Derek Jeter, one of the questions that undoubtedly will be asked is this: What position is Jeter going to play in his next contract, and for how long?

First, they'll have to consider the parameters that frame the issue for the Yankees. Jeter is 35 and turns 36 in June. First base is not really an option because Mark Teixeira is signed for most of this decade; his contract expires after 2016. Third base is not an option because Alex Rodriguez is signed through 2017.

The same defensive statistics that reflected poorly on Jeter a few years ago indicated that he has improved his lateral movement the past couple of years -- which, by the way, is in line with what some scouts are seeing with their eyes.

So where will he play, and when?

I posed that question to a number of scouts, GMs and talent evaluators. Here are some of the responses:

Talent evaluator No. 1: "Most of the time, when you see a good defensive shortstop move, they can go to second base and be pretty good -- and in some cases, really good. And of all the Yankees who've been around there in recent years, my sense was that Robinson Cano [the current second baseman] is the one guy the Yankees would at least be willing to talk about in a trade.

"So maybe what you do is trade Cano for some other piece and move Jeter to second base. I think it's hard to put him in the outfield because they won't get the kind of production that they'll need from those positions as he gets older. Second base makes the most sense to me."

Scout No. 1: "This isn't as easy as you would think. He has great baseball instincts, but in his late 30s, learning how to turn the double play from second base won't be that easy. There's no room on the corners -- and all things being equal, he'd probably best fit at either third base or first base. What if they sign Carl Crawford? Derek Jeter would be, what, your Yankees utility player making $20 million? Left field is probably the best option. DH? Probably not. Realistically, first base would be the easiest transfer of positions. Give him a month and he could be average at it."

Scout No. 2: "I think Jeter will end up in left field. I doubt he will retain enough speed to play in center field. With Yankee Stadium's big left field, it is still a valuable defensive position. I suppose if he really slowed down, they could hide him in the small right field."

Talent evaluator No. 2: "Jeter's athleticism, instincts and strong throwing arm would make him a natural fit in right field. I don't think center field is an option for the same reason that shortstop isn't an option; his speed and quick-twitch tools will likely diminish as he approaches the age of 40. There are two other things to consider. First, Jeter's defense at shortstop improved significantly last year.

"For this reason, I don't think a position shift will occur for at least another year or two. The other thing -- and this is no accident -- is the Yankees parted ways with DH types like Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui. These moves will afford the Yankees much more positional flexibility, particularly with respect to Jeter, in the immediate future."

Former Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, (now part of the "Baseball Tonight" crew): "I don't see him moving off shortstop for a couple of more years. If you had to move him, second base would be the place he would go, but he still can play shortstop.

"He still fields the balls that he gets to, he's still great on double plays. He's still a very competent shortstop, and the thing with him is that when he thinks he's lost a step or two, positioning can work for him. I wouldn't be ready to put him at another position. In fact, I could see him playing shortstop another five years -- 'til the end of his next contract. Look at Omar Vizquel -- he's over 40, and he still can play shortstop.

"Jeter's a great athlete, he's in great shape, and he can stay there. Now, if he has a major injury with his legs, that changes the equation."

Talent evaluator No. 3: "It seems like left field would probably be an ideal spot, all things considered. As he continues to age and slow down, it wouldn't be ideal for New York to have him in center field, though no doubt his instincts would allow him to play there at a competent level. In left field, he'd still bring solid athleticism and decent arm strength to the position while not having to cover as much ground as a center fielder. Jeter seems like a guy who could conceivably transition to a new position about as seamlessly as anyone in baseball. You know he's going to keep himself in the best shape possible, and his athleticism will translate pretty well to any spot once he moves off shortstop."

My own take: I think he will be a good right fielder, and as he gets older, he will be better-suited to play in the outfield spot in Yankee Stadium that requires less range; right field, as everybody knows, does not have as much open space as left field. Jeter has a strong arm and would play the ball well and aggressively, and the fact that the Yankees would have to commit what is typically a power position to someone who is not a pure power hitter doesn't matter quite as much as it would for some teams because New York will get ample power from other spots.

And I think we've reached the stage in his career when his standing as the team's shortstop will be evaluated year to year. If he shows a decline in range this year, I think the Yankees will react accordingly -- if they feel as if they need better defense at shortstop to win, they'll go get another shortstop.

As Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio discovered firsthand, generations of Yankees executives have shared a common approach when it comes to dealing with older players: They will make changes when success of the team is at stake. Through their history, they have valued wins for the franchise over nostalgia.