Derek Jeter's return just the first important step for Yankees

Hunter Martin

For the better part of two decades, the New York Yankees didn't have to worry about two things: Who was playing shortstop, and who was pitching the ninth inning of close games.

In 1996, Derek Jeter took over as the Yankees' every-day shortstop. From '96 through 2012, Jeter averaged 151 games per season. Year in and year out, the Yankees boasted one of the American League's best shortstops. Like Jeter, Mariano Rivera actually debuted with the Yankees in '95, then became a star in '96. But it wasn't until '97 that Rivera took over as closer; he's been there ever since.

Well, until 2012. Just a month into the season, Rivera suffered a terrible knee injury while shagging flies before a game in Kansas City, and was lost for the rest of the campaign. Oddly, though, Rivera's absence didn't actually hurt the Yankees much. Rafael Soriano stepped into the closer's role and finished with numbers that would have fit quite nicely into Rivera's career. The Yankees won 95 games, and just one of their four losses to the Tigers in the American League Championship Series might remotely be blamed on the bullpen.

Emotionally, the Yankees might well have missed their Hall of Fame closer last season. Professionally, it's difficult to argue that his absence cost the club anything of consequence. Which might say something important about the relative importance of relief pitching. Or it might just say something about Rafael Soriano.

Rivera's back this season, and he's been fantastic. Derek Jeter's been missing, though, and the Yankees have missed him. They've really, really missed him.

After years and years and years of ranking around the top of the majors in terms of shortstop production, here's where the Yankees sit this season, OPS-wise:

26. Astros
27. Mets
28. Pirates
29. Yankees
30. Mariners

The Pirates recently replaced Clint Barmes with rookie Jordy Mercer, which makes them better. The Mariners recently replaced Brendan Ryan with rookie Brad Miller, which makes them better. Which means the Yankees almost certainly have the worst-hitting shortstops in the League, unless something changes.

Something is changing:

... and tomorrow he's supposed to play shortstop. We don't yet know how good the 39-year-old coming off a serious injury will be. Still, I'll lay odds the Yankees move up in the shortstop rankings as the season moves along. Because even a 39-year-old, coming-off-a-serious-injury Derek Jeter is probably good for a 700 OPS in his sleep. And that would be a huge improvement over the 552 they've gotten to this point.

All of which is good news. The Yankees just need a lot more good news. Last season the Yankees led the majors with 245 home runs and outscored everybody in the majors except the Rangers. This season the Yankees are 12th in the league in home runs, and they've been outscored by the Twins ... and nine other American League teams.

Getting Jeter back, assuming he's healthy enough to hit and mobile enough to field, is a big step for the Yankees. But it's just one step, and they'll need a few more. There will be much rejoicing in the Bronx today, and with good reason. The Yankees just don't seem themselves without Derek Jeter. But they also don't seem themselves with subpar power and walks. And there's only so much the Captain can do about that, all by himself.

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