Commentary

Jeter still among MLB's top shortstops*

The asterisk? The position isn't what it used to be -- and neither is The Captain

Updated: June 13, 2011, 9:14 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

Not long ago, shortstop was the most glamorous offensive position in the sport. Alex Rodriguez hit 57 homers. Nomar Garciaparra batted .372. Miguel Tejada knocked in 150 runs. Derek Jeter once had 219 hits.

They were a foursome for the ages. First-name stars -- Alex, Derek, Nomar and Miggy -- at a first-rate position.

[+] EnlargeNomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter
Matt Campbell/Getty ImagesGone are the days when shortstops like current ESPN analyst Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter were the cream of the crop at any position.

In 2011, in part due to tighter drug testing, the shine of the position has dulled.

"There is really a lack of quality shortstops," one AL scout said. "It is a real big issue."

It is in that context, on this curve, that the last everyday shortstop standing from the famous foursome should be judged in 2011.

At Jeter's diminished state, with 3,000 hits and a 37th birthday around the corner, Jeter is still as good as at least half the shortstops in baseball -- and maybe more, if you listen to scouts.

"He would be in my top 10," another AL scout said.

With the criteria only being who would you want for this season, the scout said he would put Jeter at No. 9 on his list. Those ahead of Jeter were the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins, the Cubs' Starlin Castro, the Braves' Alex Gonzalez, the Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera, the Rangers' Elvis Andrus, the Blue Jays' Yunel Escobar and the White Sox's Alexei Ramirez.

There are others for whom arguments could easily be made, as Jeter is hitting a soft .264. The Marlins' Hanley Ramirez is having an awful year, but he's only 27. The second scout called the Jeter matchup with the Angels' Erick Aybar a "toss-up," but ultimately took Jeter.

Scouts liked Jeter over the Mets' Jose Reyes because of Jeter's durability. The Blue Jays' Escobar wasn't a lock over Jeter among the five scouts we spoke with.

As usual with Jeter, the scouts' take doesn't fully measure up with that of the sabermatricians.

Even after a strong West Coast trip, these are his current numbers: a .264 average, a .328 on-base percentage and a .332 slugging percentage.

Out of 25 shortstops who qualify for the batting title, Jeter has the 15th-best batting average, the 14th-best on-base percentage, the 20th-best slugging percentage and the 16th-best OPS (on-base plus slugging).

It comes down to pedigree (nod to Jeter) versus present day production (which puts someone like Oakland's Cliff Pennington in The Captain's weight class).

"Jeter doesn't have the same tools," said a third AL scout, who has spent a great deal of time around the Yankees this season. "He can still play shortstop. He is not sensational anymore, but he makes all the routine plays. At the plate, I've seen him look really bad and really good. I wouldn't say he is done."

He is not yet done as a useful player, but as a star he has faded.

There are only a handful of guys powerful enough to have been able to compete in the Alex, Derek, Nomar and Miggy days. Tulowitzki and the up-and-coming Cabrera are the only shortstops with double-digit homers this season.

So it can become a little hazy, comparing the soon-to-be Mr. 3,000 with shortstops with much lighter career resumes but similar 2011 stats.

The scouts continue to love -- if we can make up a word -- Jeter's "Captain-ness." They say he is about more than the numbers.

Scouts believe Jeter's history of being a winning player who knows the right spot to be at all times still counts for something even with his skills decaying as his 37th birthday on June 26 approaches.

Perhaps with a Yankeeography dancing in their minds, the scouts favor Jeter even over players with superior stats. The Tigers' Jhonny Peralta, a .265 career hitter, entered Wednesday batting better than .300 this season. He has eight homers and 31 RBIs. His OPS is .906. Jeter has two homers, both in Texas' jet stream.

Yes, Peralta's numbers might be flukes, but Jeter's aren't even close. Still, the scouts liked Jeter better because, as one said, Jeter is "clutch." Peralta entered Wednesday night hitting .280 with runners in scoring position, while Jeter is at .179 with RISP.

How about closer to home? Reyes? A healthy Reyes is dynamic. His .OPS is nearly .900 and he has scored more runs than any other shortstop in baseball. The scouts would rather have Jeter because of Reyes' durability issues.

The Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew has an OPS that is 140 points higher than Jeter's, while the Escobar stands above Drew's, hovering around .850. Still, a scout again felt Jeter was more of a winning player than either.

In these flip-a-coin 2011 matchups, Jeter not only gets the edge because of his right-place, right-time sixth sense, but his defense. Jeter may not have the range, but he takes care of all the balls in front of him. This routine skill is more important with scoring down.

"It has taken on an increased premium," a scout said.

In 2011, Jeter is about a league-average defender, according to Baseball Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved metric. He actually has been much better this year compared to last.

The stat ranks how many runs a player saved or cost his team compared to the average player at shortstop. With zero being average, Jeter entered the week at minus-1. The Royals' Alcides Escobar is the best in baseball at 10 runs saved. Last year, Jeter cost the Yankees 13 runs, according to the metric, which was fourth worst in baseball.

Right now -- even with the scouts' high opinions of him -- Jeter is a middling middle infielder. There are worse and there are better.

He once was matched up against A-Rod in his prime, now it is guys like Pennington in Oakland. Pennington entered the week with nearly the same .OPS as Jeter. His Defensive Runs Saved was minus-4. Last year, it was plus-9.

Pennington, a decade younger, will never be in Jeter's career class, but in 2011 it could be argued he should be part of Jeter's foursome. They are both good enough to be starting major league shortstops, but not stars, not even at a position dulled by time.

Jeter is not as good as he used to be, but neither is anyone else.

ESPN researcher Katie Sharp contributed to this story.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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