By Sweeny Murti
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“Nothing dies pretty. Reputations, marriages, dream careers: They can sail for decades undented; even at 38, you can be all kinds of gorgeous. But the end? The end is pain, and pain is ugly.” — S.L. Price
That is from Sports Illustrated only six weeks ago, but that’s how Price was describing Alex Rodriguez, not Derek Jeter. Six weeks ago we wondered if A-Rod would ever play at a level we are used to seeing, or better yet—ever play at all? Now those are the questions we are asking about Jeter, his 2013 season officially ending when the Yankees placed him on the DL Wednesday.
At 38, Derek Jeter was all kinds of gorgeous, wasn’t he? He rapped out 216 hits, the second highest total of his career. He batted .316 and made people start to wonder if he could chase down 4,000 hits and make a run at Pete Rose. Why not? What was stopping him?
Jeter was 8 for 22 (.364) in the Division Series win over Baltimore. It sure looked like he was back at home in October and ready to make a run at his sixth World Series ring. But then he broke his ankle and nothing has been the same since, it seems both for Jeter and the Yankees. Pain is ugly.
Jeter swears he will be back in 2014, this time able to spend the offseason strengthening his legs, the only part of his body he couldn’t fully work out in the last year and the part that has given him all the trouble. Jeter has no doubt. Joe Girardi has no doubt. Brian Cashman has no doubt. I think we would all like that to be true, but there really is no way to know what Jeter will look like when he tries to play again six months from now.
The Yankees will expect him to pick up his $9.5 million option for next year, but they will likely have to have a better backup plan than Eduardo Nunez, who showed signs of being the exciting player the Yankees believe he can be, but also lacked the durability the team needs if they are going to commit to him at a key position.
This is all something to think about for the offseason, which is coming up soon, of course. But what about what’s left of this season? The Yankees are still in a playoff race, aren’t they? Who steps up now and gets the Yankees into October?
The day after Jeter broke his ankle last October, and the Yankees were down one game to none against Detroit in the ALCS, Joe Girardi said “This is a great chance for a lot of people to really show their mettle. As an athlete those are the things you want. This is a challenge. It was a challenge with Derek, and now these guys get a challenge to show how great they are.”
And in response, I wrote that the challenge fell “most squarely on the shoulders of Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano.” And guess what? It does just that all over again.
Six weeks ago we were supposed to be seeing The Last Days of A-Rod, as that SI piece told us. Who didn’t believe that was true? Suspension was looming, possibly for life. But A-Rod responded to that challenge, and after finally shutting down all the peripheral noise he is answering the real question surrounding his return—after two hip surgeries can he possibly be a productive player? In the short term, the answer is yes. He is showing extra-base power and, despite a hamstring flare-up running the bases Tuesday night, has proven to be more durable than any of us probably imagined.
Here is another chance for A-Rod to escape Jeter’s shadow and help turn Yankees fans on his side. As I wrote last October, “A-Rod has a chance to pull himself out of this baseball grave that’s been dug for him. If he has the physical skill to do it, then he needs to show the mental resolve to accomplish it.” Still all true, in my opinion.
As for Cano, the narrative has changed with him only a little bit. I wrote last October, “Cano’s time is now. He can make the Yankees his team for the rest of this decade.” As free agency approaches, now mere weeks away instead of months, it is once again a chance for Cano to make a statement.
Cano’s poor postseason showing last year has jaded many opinions about his viability as a star player for the Yankees in the future, but let’s not forget that he literally hit .600 (.615 to be exact) over the final nine regular season games to help the Yankees win the AL East. Cano is a career .330 hitter in the season’s final month, including hot streaks that helped the Yankees get into the postseason in 2005 and 2007, too. But I guess Mr. September doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
If Robinson Cano wants to be a Yankee the rest of his career, he can win a lot of points by being the player the Yankees need down the stretch, and taking the reins of leadership. It will be a statement to both Yankee ownership and Yankee fans that Cano is the type of player they need to invest in, not throw away.
We now know that Derek Jeter isn’t going to ride to the rescue in 2013. But Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano still have a chance. Yankees fans just might embrace them both if it happens.
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