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Should mixed leaguers cut Derek Jeter?

6/14/2011

If Yunel Escobar, Ian Desmond and Darwin Barney were placed on the disabled list Tuesday, you would probably cut them in ESPN standard (10-team) mixed leagues and look for another shortstop. Perhaps Desmond and his lofty stolen base totals are a bit different, but still, in general, you would probably move on, since none of them are big names, and they're not exactly performing at an awesome level. These fellows are just outside the top 10 among shortstops on the ESPN Player Rater.

Guess who is directly behind them, sputtering along at No. 14? Yep, it's Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees. Well, Jeter, approaching his 3,000th hit, suffered a Grade 1 strain of his right calf Monday night. As of this writing, we don't have an update on how many games he'll potentially miss, if he'll need a DL stint, etc.

In a way, it's not relevant. Look, if you took out the Hall of Fame name and just looked at the statistics, Jeter is no longer a must-own fantasy player in a shallow league, and if I knew that said player was going to miss at least a few weeks, when about 14 weeks remain for the season, I would have to consider cutting him depending on what else is available and how much bench space I had. Jeter is contributing in a truly valuable way in one fantasy statistic: runs scored. The seven stolen bases are nice, but can we really count on that pace continuing, especially with a leg injury added to the equation? I'm not saying you should cut Jeter right now, because he might be back in the lineup in a few days, and as it stands, he's a league-average shortstop and useful. But you shouldn't feel dirty about considering it. He's performing even worse than last year, at barely replacement level, with no reason to believe it's a fluke.

From a true baseball sense, as colleague David Schoenfield noted overnight in the SweetSpot blog, the Yankees can survive a few weeks without him (long term would be a problem because of the team's lack of depth at shortstop). Outfielder Brett Gardner has more speed and better on-base skills and can capably lead off. Fill-in shortstop Eduardo Nunez is not a better fantasy option than Jeter, and to be blunt, he's not a defensive upgrade, either, but it appears he can steal a base and hit the same insane number of ground balls as Jeter. And don't give me intangibles as a separating factor. This isn't about Jeter's Hall of Fame career, this is only about his value to a fantasy roster for the next three months.

Way too many fantasy owners underestimate the importance of batting average and its grand effect. Jeter is 15th in the major leagues in at-bats, which makes his .260 batting average pretty impactful, perhaps more so than the guys really struggling in batting average but batting far less (Adam Dunn, for example). For years, Fantasy Focus podcast co-host Nate Ravitz and I have extolled the virtues of Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, often recommending him and selecting him earlier in drafts than our colleagues were comfortable with. Ichiro bats 700 times, and his .330 batting average is every bit as critical as a player who hits 30 home runs. Of course, this season is a different story (regarding Ichiro), but that's a different blog. Point is, Jeter's batting average hurts a fantasy team just as much as the runs scored and occasional stolen base help it, perhaps more.

Let's put it this way: If Barney can keep hitting .300 while providing the same numbers as Jeter in runs scored, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases, which he is, it stands to reason that if Barney plays more games than Jeter from here on out with the extra 40 points in batting average, he is more valuable. I'll stop a bit short of proclaiming that to actually be true, because Barney is a rookie and hasn't done much since April and appears an obvious regression candidate. But my point is Jeter was a sixth-round pick in ESPN average live drafts and has not played like one, even with reasonably lower expectations and shortstop being a position that lacks fantasy depth. The undrafted and still casually owned Barney has been better. Both have been barely replacement-level players this season, which is why neither should be held to a high standard in terms of trust and high ownership.

Jeter isn't a bad player. I should point out that there are worse leadoff hitters in terms of OBP (he ranks 22nd out of 47 leadoff hitters with a .336 OBP). Jeter is hitting .391 when he is the first batter of the game and .344 leading off an inning. He's important to the Yankees -- statistically and psychologically -- and he has a place in fantasy leagues. But if he hits the DL and has to miss a few weeks, or potentially more if this injury lines up with what befell Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins a season ago, look elsewhere. It's the smart thing to do, and your fantasy team is not the New York Yankees.