By the Decade: Filling in for Derek JeterBy
Yesterday afternoon, I launched our decade retrospective of the Yankees in the ’00s with a look at the catchers. Today, we continue with another position held by one player over ten seasons. That player is, of course, the captain, Derek Jeter, and short stop will be his, for better or worse, until he voluntarily gives it up or retires.
Any Yankee fan worth his or her salt knows that Derek Jeter was truly the short stop of the decade, but these numbers underscore the grip Jeter had on that spot. His at-bats constituted 91.5 percent of all Yankee short stop ABs over the last ten season, and without his contributions, Yankee short stops hit .216/.263/.322. It ain’t easy finding someone to back up Derek Jeter.
Now and then, though, the Yankees have had to find a replacement for Jeter. He played in 1500 games over the course of the decade out of the Yanks’ 1620 games and suffered through a long on the disabled list in 2003. And so instead of roasting Derek Jeter — we do that often enough — let’s instead take a look back at one of the guest short stops who had to fill for the injured captain.
It was March 31, 2003, Opening Day in Toronto. In the third inning of the match-up between the Yankees and Blue Jays, Jeter was on first with one old and Jason Giambi up. The Blue Jays had deployed the Giambi Shift, and when the Yanks’ slugger grounded out to the pitcher, Jeter saw open space in front of him as he rounded second. Johnny Damon may have made it to third against the Phillies during the World Series, but in Toronto, catcher Ken Huckabee rushed to cover the open base.
What happened was gruesome. Jeter slid as Huckabee arrived to block third base. Derek’s left shoulder slammed into the catcher’s shin guards and was instantly dislocated. At first, we thought Jeter would be out for a long time, but he missed just six weeks of the season. Enter Erick Almonte.
In 2002, Baseball America had ranked Almonte as the Yanks’ eighth best prospect, and their write-up was a bit over the top. He was called ” chiseled athlete” with a “combination of size and tools…similar to Derek Jeter’s.” The write-up recommended the Yanks move Almonte to second or left. On April 2, 2003, the 25-year-old found himself in Toronto, filling in for an injured Jeter.
Almonte homered in his first game and handled himself adequately in Jeter’s absence. He hit .272/.337/.370 in 28 games, and the Yanks went 20-8 in those games. He was, however, atrocious in the field. For the season, he made 12 errors in 128 chances and showed little range. After 2003, he would never again appear in the Majors and has become a career Minor League. He spent 2009, his age 31 season, as an infielder with the Brewers’ AAA affiliate.
After that 2003 injury, Jeter wouldn’t miss significant time this decade. He missed a few games in 2001 with a strained quad and again in 2008 with a similar injury. He dove head-first into the stands on July 1, 2004, and A-Rod earned his first chance at the short stop hole in pinstripes. (For what it’s worth, A-Rod’s lost appearance at short was on June 5, 2005 when he took over for Rey Sanchez. Jeter simply had the day off.)
By and large, though, the fill-ins have been pretty forgettable. Enrique Wilson earned himself far too many at-bats and so did Miguel Cairo. The others paraded through, giving Derek a day off now and then while leaving no lasting impression. Who really remembers Felix Escalona anyway? But such are the trials and tribulations of those in charge of backing up a future Hall of Famer who hates to miss a game.
In the end, short stop has belonged to Jeter this decade. From the Flip in 2001 to a fifth World Series ring this year, Derek has owned that spot. For him, it was quite a decade, and Yankee fans can only hope for another decade of .850 OPS offense out of the short stop spot.