- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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The story came and went in a cyber-second, like some massive wave crashing onto the beach, full of sound and fury only to retreat without a sound. Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez to center field? A crazy, organization-rattling idea, for sure, except that Yankees manager Joe Torre made it disappear by claiming his comments to a Reuters reporter were taken out of context.
By the end of the news cycle everyone was convinced Jeter and A-Rod are staying put, and another day was crossed off the Yankees' winter calendar. But their center-field crisis is still no closer to being resolved.
Brian Giles apparently is not going to New York, never was. Johnny Damon is asking for seven years, to which one Yankee executive says he and agent Scott Boras "have their heads in the clouds." Milton Bradley is a long shot -- "obviously, the guy's got issues," says the insider -- and as long as the Bombers are holding onto Chien-Ming Wang and Robinson Cano, they have no shot of prying Torii Hunter away from the Twins.
And if all else fails, there's always Bubba Crosby. That brings the Yankees back to Torre's hypothetical quip about moving one of his shortstops to center field. What's really so crazy about the idea, given that the Yankees are almost out of options?
Jeter and A-Rod are gifted athletes who could make the switch and actually improve the Yankees' overall defense. Both are quicker than Crosby with superior throwing arms. But without saying so, it was Jeter whom Torre was imagining as his next center fielder.
At 31, he's one year older than A-Rod but still faster in an all-out sprint, more graceful leaving his feet and has that extraordinary radar for fly balls and pop-ups, even with his back to the ball.
Of course, we hear the voices of protest, the loudest of which belongs to GM Brian Cashman. "The guy's a Gold Glove winner, why would we make a switch?" he said by telephone on Tuesday. The reason is because Jeter is that talented, and, for all Cashman's efforts to begin the post-Bernie Williams era, no one else looks quite as good as the Yankee captain.
It all goes back to that obsessive need to catch everything in the air -- evidenced by his crashing into the stands for a foul ball against the Red Sox on July 1, 2004. Jeter, bloodied and bruised, all but won the Gold Glove that year in a single play. He was just as consumed in a May 25 collision with Robinson Cano, climbing all over the rookie second baseman to grab a Marcus Thames soft flare into shallow center, snuffing out a Tigers rally.
"Phenomenal" is what A-Rod said of Jeter that night, shaking his head in admiration. The shortstop pursues fly balls with the frenzy of a man chasing after a bus. That's a trait few shortstops possess. Not many center fielders have it, either, but if Jeter can work that magic diving into the stands or behind second base, you could imagine him navigating the wall in right- and left-center, getting to balls that outdistanced Williams in 2005.
The question, naturally, is whether the Yankees could possibly convince Jeter to begin a new life in the outfield. The answer is, of course not. They won't even ask.
He's branded as their leader, no mere man but The Man. Jeter is the franchise's most marketable commodity playing the most challenging position. If he wouldn't surrender shortstop for A-Rod in 2004, why would he do it now?
Even broaching the subject would be political suicide for anyone in the organization, Torre included. The Yankees learned a lesson watching the war that was waged at Camden Yards before Cal Ripken finally realized his diminishing range made a move to third base a necessity -- for his sake, not the Orioles.
In this case, though, Jeter wouldn't be abandoning short because of any deficiency. Nor would it represent a concession to A-Rod. Instead, Jeter is a solution to a problem the Yankees haven't been able to solve. And, while Jeter would (naturally) be opposed to the idea, the Yankees could spin the switch thusly:
Only great athletes can play center field. And if it was good enough for Mickey Mantle to go from shortstop to center field, why not Derek Jeter?
After all, it was Torre himself who invoked this precedent during his interview with Reuters. Whether the manager was speaking off the top of his head or giving away in-house secrets, his logic was flawless. And notice that Torre spoke of Jeter and A-Rod as his "shortstops." Two of them. That's the other weapon at the Yankees' disposal -- move Jeter to the outfield, where he'll excel, and Torre has another Gold Glover to replace him.
So who would the Yankees chase for the infield vacancy? Nomar Garciaparra would be a possibility, having played 34 games at third base last year. So is Troy Glaus, who is being shopped by the Diamondbacks. Or else the Yankees can clear a path for prospect Eric Duncan, although he struggled last year at Double-A Trenton.
Point is, the Yankees do have options at third, which is more than they can say about center field. If Jeter-to-center field was really that crazy, Torre shouldn't have allowed himself to be drawn into a conversation about it.
Then again, maybe Torre knew exactly what he was saying. If so, the trial balloon is hereby afloat.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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