Commentary

Nunez's play a good thing for Yankees

The shortstop's skill set gives the Bombers an easy solution to handling Jeter's decline

Updated: June 28, 2011, 8:56 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- It was two years ago down in Tampa, Fla., and New York Yankees officials wanted Eduardo Nunez to stop throwing from three-quarters motion and instead come from over the top.

Nunez procrastinated and was slow to the change until finally No. 2 saddled up next to him and explained the benefits.

"Of course, then he did it," said Yankees senior vice president Mark Newman, who heads up the Yankees' minor league operations.

Nunez is now emerging as a dynamic, yet inconsistent player. At 24, his running and hitting have an explosiveness that Derek Jeter's 37-year-old body may not contain anymore. He also has eight errors in 74 total chances, while Jeter committed just four in 204 opportunities.

Still, Nunez could be the man who best solves the future (near future?) dilemma of what to do with an aging Jeter. After Jeter's calf fully heals and he collects hit No. 3,000, Joe Girardi can finally move Jeter down in the order as the organization can make sure it values winning over legacy.

A bigger topic will then emerge: When should Jeter move from shortstop? The answer here is never until the meat of his contract runs out. There is a big asterisk, though, when we say never.

The best eventual solution is for Jeter to play from four to six games at short a week, with Nunez handling two to four games. This sliding scale can be adjusted with how each shortstop plays.

This season, the Yankees have already subtly done this by shifting Jeter and/or Alex Rodriguez to DH against many lefties and starting Nunez.

When Jeter gets a rest, he comes back as the Jeter we all used to know. With a day off, Jeter is hitting .313 with a .370 on-base percentage in 12 games.

Without a day off, he hits .248 with a .314 on-base in 50 games.

During games, his production even fades. In the first three innings, Jeter is a .308 hitter with a .385 on-base. From innings four through six, he hits .247 with a .325 on-base. At the end of games (after the seventh inning), he is a .207 batter with a .239 on-base.

The problem with Jeter and Nunez forming a 1 and 1A shortstop tandem for the next two seasons is the quarterback controversy syndrome that surely could engulf this team.

However, this could be diminished because of Nunez's reverence for Jeter and if Jeter can realize this is the best the Yankees can do by him as his abilities recede.

Ultimately, a declining Jeter should graciously accept such a shift, recognizing it is the best solution for him as the captain and for the team. He can keep his body fresher and his game more like the one that made him a legend.

With not perfect solution, this is the better than any other option.

For instance, to eventually ask Jeter to become a $17-million-per-year utility player doesn't fully make sense. The spectacle of the 37-year-old Jeter moving all around the diamond or learning the outfield is too much at his age. Plus, where would he even fill in?

It would be a sideshow with Todd Hundley-Mike Piazza type endings.

Yankees GM Brian Cashman thinks that Nunez is one of the best young shortstops in the game. Nunez needs to become more consistent in the field. With extended playing time, he could be further exposed or he could whittle down his defensive mistakes.

Nunez, though, has been what Jeter has trademarked as his legacy. He has been a winning player, as evidenced by his two game-winning RBIs (same as Jeter's) this season. Nunez is hitting .308 with runners in scoring position compared to Jeter's .179.

Since Jeter went on the DL, Nunez has hit .286. Jeter is at .260 on the season. There is little doubt, Nunez would hit for more power over the long haul. They both have two homers this year.

The Yankees are 9-3 with Nunez starting since the middle of this month. They are averaging nearly six runs per game. Nunez is just a piece of the offense as Rodriguez and Nick Swisher, among others, have been on fire.

There is no easy way to handle an athlete's decline, but there is always a best way. In Jeter's case, it is allowing him to remain at shortstop, but decrease his playing time even more.

Jeter may not like it. He may not understand or agree with it. He may not even know that all the alternatives would be worse for him.

With this solution, Jeter can remain at shortstop, just not on a full-time basis. So Nunez's tantalizing talents at short could be the best thing that happens for Jeter to remain there even longer.

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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