Can the Yankees win the championship without an elite shortstop?

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The Yankees are without an elite shortstop ever since their legendary shortstop Derek Jeter took retirement. The team also won its last championship in 2009 when the charismatic captain was their leader. It looks like missing a great shortstop, perhaps, the biggest obstacle for the Yankees to win another championship in the last decade and a half.

Each of the last six teams to win a World Series ring had a top-notch shortstop on the team. Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner, Corey Seager, Dansby Swanson, and Jeremy Pena, the last six starting shortstops to win the World Series, were all at the top of their position when they won. All six are still some of the best, and the first five are now signed to contracts worth a total of $989 million. Pena is only 25 years old, but he already has an MVP award from the World Series, an MVP award from the Championship Series, and a Gold Glove. Without a similar strong elite shortstop, the Yankees have failed to become world title holders.

The Astros won their first championship by going 562 with 14 RBI in 18 games. As a young 22-year-old, Correa completely changed what it meant to be a solid shortstop. When Correa beat the Yankees in the 2017 ALCS, the position was already getting stronger and bigger, and once the championship was won, there was no going back. An elite shortstop in the class of Correa is the key to the Yankees winning a trophy.

The Yankees need a strong shortstop who could match the level of stars in other teams. But the shortstop for the Yankees right now is not one of those guys. Isiah Kiner-Falefa has the worst slugging percentage of any player who has made at least 2,000 plate appearances since his first season in 2018. Even though slugging is not a part of his game—and he, the Yankees, and every coach who plans against them knows this—IKF and other players like him rarely play a role in winning a championship anymore. If one is a shortstop on a good team, you’re expected to hit at least 20 balls over the fence, keep the left side of the infield clear, and bring fans to the team store in droves to buy your jersey.

The achievements of all six of the most recent shortstops to win the World Series ran parallel to the Yankees championship tryst. In 2017, the Bombers had a chance at the title. Power hitter Aaron Judge made 52 home runs while Luis Severino provided a solid force to their rotation. But as that time period started to take shape and Gleyber Torres was hailed as their dream shortstop, it didn’t take long to realize that Torres was more like Dan Uggla, a second baseman who could hit but didn’t do much on defense.

That’s why the Yankees went for Kiner-Falefa in 2022. Kiner-Falefa is known for how good he is at fielding, but he tends to have a few annoying at-bats every week. He is the kind of player who doesn’t help a team win, but can hurt it, as he did in 2022. The 2022 Yankees also won 99 games and a playoff series, which is nothing to scoff at but isn’t quite up to the skyscraper-high expectations of the city.

If the Yankees win a pennant and keep Kiner-Falefa at shortstop, it will be because their strong pitching staff makes up for the fact that the bottom of their lineup doesn’t hit well. If Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, Nestor Cortes, and Severino stay healthy, they are strong enough to cover up the Yankees’ other flaws. The Giants of the 2010s are the best example of a team that got to the top by having consistently good pitching and just enough offense. These Yankees are better all around than those teams, but the game has changed a lot since the 2014 Giants won the World Series with just two home runs in seven games. No longer can a bad offensive team like the 2015 Royals surprise the world by coasting on sacrifice flies and small balls?

The Yankees are in an interesting spot between the Giants, who have a lot of good pitchers, and the scrappy Royals. Last season, this team scored more runs than any other in the American League, even though the shortstop’s turn at bat didn’t help much. They’ve done most of the things that a modern contender should do, like put home runs at the top of their list of priorities, build an unbeatable bullpen, and sign their best players to long-term deals. They just don’t have a shortstop, which is the one thing that every team that beat them in the last six years had.

This is where the growing possibilities come in. There is a good chance that Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe will become another Jeremy Pena. The question is how likely that is and when it will happen. If either of them shows that they are as close to being done as Pena was in 2022, the Yankees are in good shape. If they show that they need more games, which is likely for two guys who are 22 and 21, the Yankees will have to try to go against the recent trend of World Series winners having shortstops who helped them win.

The 21-year-old shortstop has hit .353/.450/.647 in his first six games. Anthony Volpe has a home run, two doubles, five runs scored, three walks, and three stolen bases.

“I think he’s got all the tools,” said Aaron Judge about Anthony Volpe. “He checks a lot of boxes defensively, offensively. He’s got the speed… My thing has always been, if you’re the best player, it shouldn’t matter your age. You should be up helping the New York Yankees.”

Aaron Boone has said since the first day of spring training that the Yankees wouldn’t mind selecting Anthony Volpe as the starting shortstop choice if he could show that he was ready to be in that position.

Anthony Volpe plays at shortstop during Yankees spring training camp.
Charles Wenzelberg / NYP

In 18 regular-season games for the Yankees, Peraza started at both shortstop and second base and hit .306 with an OPS of .832.

Judge can’t do everything on his own and it was clear last August. He must be supported by the Yankees batting order. But this is what’s missing here, especially if the starting pitchers and bullpen do as well as they’re expected to in 2023. Since the middle of the 2010s, when Alcides Escobar and Addison Russell’s weak bats were hidden by the rest of their teams, no team with an offensive shortstop at the IKF level has won the whole thing.

Since then, people like Correa and Seager have become popular, and the people watching their competitors host parades may know this better than anyone else. To get off the bench, the Yankees either need to find a player like Correa or Seager, or pray for a miracle.

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