Commentary

Time for Joe to move Jeter to two-hole

Gardner's play since the Captain reached 3K should force a change in the Yanks' lineup

Updated: July 21, 2011, 11:29 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Since July 9, that sublime day when Derek Jeter, needing a pair of hits to reach 3,000, came up with five including a dramatic home run off David Price, the Yankees' captain has had just six hits in 30 at-bats (.200).

Over the same stretch, Brett Gardner, batting at or near the bottom of the lineup most days, has been ridiculous: batting .536 (15-for-28) with an on-base percentage of .594. He also has scored six runs and stolen five bases.

If there was ever a time for Joe Girardi to make a change at the top of the batting order, that time is now.

Not only do the numbers say so, so do the circumstances.

Jeter has attained his milestone, in spectacular fashion. The Yankosphere and the entire baseball universe have had a suitable amount of time to celebrate his accomplishment.

And best of all, the condition of the Yankees' roster practically dictates that a lineup shake-up is in order. It need not -- and this is vitally important -- seem as if Jeter is being demoted, merely shifted downward for the welfare of the team.

For that five-game stretch between July 4, the date of Jeter's return to the lineup after a stint on the DL with a calf strain, and that festive Saturday at Yankee Stadium, the topic of Jeter's place in the batting order was essentially put on hold, and any talk of dropping him from the leadoff spot was unofficially, but indisputably, taboo.

However, the subject re-emerged during Girardi's media session before Wednesday night's game between the Yankees and Rays, and the manager clearly, if somewhat reluctantly, acknowledged that at some point this season, a passing of the torch at the top of the lineup might well occur.

"Well, it's something that we thought about at one time,'' Girardi said. "It's something you definitely think about, you know, maybe you get [Gardner] back up top somewhere. I mean, I don't have any plans to do it. I haven't done it yet.''

That is true only because a rainout July 8, the night before the Jeter 3K game, wiped out a lineup that had Gardner batting first, Jeter second and Curtis Granderson third against Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson, a right-hander.

And Girardi acknowledged Wednesday night that he could write out such a lineup again when a right-hander is starting, although he was quick to point out that it would have nothing to do with Jeter's numbers but rather the dwindling numbers of healthy bodies on his roster.

The July 8 lineup was dictated in part by the unavailability that night of Nick Swisher, who had a quad injury, and Alex Rodriguez, who was suffering from a sore knee that ultimately required surgery.

Three weeks later, it still makes perfect sense, for a lot of reasons. Although Swisher has recovered, A-Rod is at least a month from returning, and probably more.

The Yankees' regular No. 2 hitter, Granderson, has 26 home runs and 70 RBIs. He has proved capable of hitting lefties as well as righties. He probably belongs in the middle of the lineup rather than near the top.

And Gardner, who is batting .291 overall with a .372 OBP and hasn't been caught stealing since June 18, a stretch of 16 successful steals, still embodies just about any manager's idea of the prototypical leadoff hitter.

Even Girardi, who seeks to avoid topics that carry even a whiff of controversy, could not avoid engaging this one.

"I might. I might,'' he said when asked whether he might return Gardner to the leadoff spot, at least against a right-handed starter. "I mean, he's going so well it's something that I'll definitely consider. We'll just wait and see what happens.''

That can only be interpreted as waiting to see if, now that the emotional rush of his chase for 3,000 is behind him, Jeter begins to put together a consistent stretch of offensive production.

The theory that Jeter might be suffering from a post-3K letdown was offered to Girardi, but he rejected it. "He hasn't gotten a ton of hits, but he's had some good at-bats, some big hits, had a big hit in Toronto for us,'' Girardi said. "But to me, he's been the same guy, maybe even a little bit more relaxed now that it's over with, because now he's on his normal routine.''

Which could mean the Jeter you see now -- .263, .322 OBP, just nine stolen bases and 17 extra-base hits -- is the Jeter you're going to see for the rest of the season, not great, not terrible and not all that different than the Jeter we saw last year.

In that case, it might not be a bad thing for Girardi to replace him with Gardner at the top of the lineup and slide everyone down a slot until A-Rod returns, meaning Jeter No. 2 and Granderson No. 3, and moving Mark Teixeira -- who continues to have a strange offensive season -- to No. 5 while keeping Robinson Cano in the cleanup spot.

"There's a lot of different things you can try,'' Girardi said. "But I think guys get used to seeing their names in a certain spot and they identify themselves with that spot. I think you can get caught up sometimes trying to catch lightning in a bottle. You move a guy because he's hot, and you disrupt your whole lineup.''

The way the Yankees have been hitting lately, a little disruption might not be such a bad thing. It's possible that Girardi is avoiding making the move because he is concerned that it might result in a repeat of the Jorge Posada one-day sitdown strike when the manager tried to drop him to ninth in the order in May.

But this would be nowhere near as radical, nor need it be portrayed nor perceived as a demotion for the most beloved Yankee of our generation.

"I have to do what I feel is best for the team,'' Girardi said. "And when when you look up at a lineup, you look at how it works together, independent of one guy. And no, I'm not afraid to have that conversation.''

Then what's keeping it from taking place? Sooner or later, Brett Gardner is going to replace Derek Jeter as the Yankees' leadoff hitter. What better time than now?

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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