Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Around the Horn: Middle infielders

The following is the third in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League club, position by position. Every Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Middle infielders.

NEW YORK -- The last 12 seasons at Yankee Stadium have been marked by at least one constant dynamic -- Derek Jeter as the starting shortstop and Joe Torre as his manager, the pair growing to understand and respect their dual contributions to the club.

That close relationship will be altered by a coast-to-coast flight in 2008, which figures to present Jeter's upcoming season with its most drastic changes to date.

"It's going to be weird," Jeter admitted. "He was always a little Hollywood anyway, so he's going to fit right in out there."

Still, for a player who prides himself on consistency, Jeter's aim is to keep things as even-keeled as possible, especially as part of the middle-infield glue that hopes to keep the Yankees' string of 13 consecutive postseason appearances alive.

Torre may be on his way to Los Angeles, Alex Rodriguez may be locked up into the next decade and a new ballpark may be rising into a stately figure across the street, but at the root of it all, Jeter still remains as the Yankees' captain. That keeps things steady enough.

"One thing with our organization, there's always change," Jeter said. "It seems like especially in years we haven't won, you've seen a lot of influx of players coming in and out. It's good for us to have the opportunity to have most of the guys back and have another shot at it."

Jeter, who turns 34 in June, is coming off a 2007 campaign in which he was slowed by nagging injuries but managed to remain productive. Jeter batted .322 with 12 home runs, 73 RBIs and 102 runs scored in 156 games for New York, ranking third in the American League with 206 hits -- even as pain caused him to noticeably lose a step in the field.

One telltale sign that Jeter was beginning to let his guard down came late in the season, when the All-Star finally began to acquiesce to days off that he normally treated like elective dental surgery. Torre even remarked that Jeter stopped putting up a fight on some days, knowing that his at-bats were lacking and that he had tried to force the issue.

Getting older, Jeter was asked? Just wiser, he answered.

"You learn over the years not to fight too much," Jeter said. "I want to play, that goes without saying. There are times days off can help."

Still, few have been able to experience as much winning as Jeter has since 1996, which sets his value apart from most. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jeter owns the highest personal winning percentage (1,104-729, .604) among all active players with a minimum of 1,000 games.

His .354 batting average with runners in scoring position ranked eighth in the AL in 2007, further reinforcement of a long-held reputation as a "clutch" player.

"Ever since you're a little kid, you think of being up in big situations," Jeter said. "I think you always envision yourself coming through."

The Yankees can only hope that Jeter's double-play partner, Robinson Cano, continues to build on a similarly strong start to his Major League career. The 25-year-old Cano batted .306 in a career-high 160 games played for the Yankees last season, turning in another impressive campaign as he cements himself as a cornerstone of the club's future.

Though Cano didn't come close to challenging for the batting title again, as he did by hitting .342 in his sophomore season, 2007 marked a number of new high-water marks for the left-handed-hitting infielder.

New York Yankees
Catchers: Yankees in good hands
Corner IF: A-Rod back for more
Middle IF: Jeter anchors DP combo
Outfielders: Familiar lineup remains
Starters: Youth meets experience
Bullpen: Uncertainties after Rivera
DH/Bench: Plenty of options

Cano established career highs in runs scored (93), hits (189), triples (seven), home runs (19), RBIs (97) and walks (39), while equaling his previous career high with 41 doubles.

Though Cano would later reveal that he had been bothered by an abdominal injury in September, he was able to play the schedule uninterrupted -- something he could not do in 2006, when a strained left hamstring cost him a chance to play in the All-Star Game.

"The biggest thing for me has been finishing the season healthy," Cano said in September. "It's not like last year, when I was on the [disabled list] and the team needed me. This year, I've been here the whole season. It's been great. Everything is better than last year."

His numbers were helped by a flourishing finish, as Cano batted .343 with 13 home runs and 57 RBIs after the All-Star break -- even, as he would later reveal, playing through an abdominal injury in September.

Repeatedly, Torre pegged Cano's style and swagger as holding earmarks of two former all-time second basemen, Roberto Alomar and Rod Carew. With continued progress, Cano may work those comparisons into new manager Joe Girardi's vocabulary.

Since his debut in May 2005, Cano has amassed the most hits (498) of any AL second baseman, second in the Majors only to Chase Utley of the Phillies.

Cano said this week that he hopes to remain in New York for the foreseeable future and has interest in a contract extension, but there has been no dialogue with the club to that effect.

"I would like to go long term, but they haven't said anything yet," Cano said. "I hope it happens. If not, I'll just keep playing."

With Cano and Jeter making 157 and 153 starts, respectively, there was not a whole lot of time for other faces to make their presences felt in the Yankees' middle infield last season.

Wilson Betemit, acquired from the Dodgers last July, would figure to be the primary backup should anything happen to either player. The 26-year-old switch-hitter made one start at second base and four at shortstop after coming over from Los Angeles, batting .226 in 37 games.

Slick-fielding Alberto Gonzalez, acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Randy Johnson trade, made two starts at shortstop and appeared 11 times for New York in a September callup and also played some second base in the Minor Leagues. The Yankees have also invited Nick Green, who played both positions briefly for New York in 2006, to Spring Training as a non-roster player.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.