Yankees' Derek Jeter benched, but will Joe Girardi move him down in the order

Joe Girardi took the bold step of benching Derek Jeter on Saturday, and in doing so put the Yankee captain’s slump in a harsh light. Girardi is under increasing pressure to react to Jeter’s decline, which is now into its fourth month. does the manager have the guts to take the next step – dropping Jeter in the batting order in October?

It all depends on the final three weeks. Senior officials privately have discussed the merits of turning Jeter into a no. 7 hitter, but ultimately it’s Girardi’s call. For now, he’s issuing the boiler-plate vote of confidence, but one talent evaluator cut through the hype when he said Jeter’s .247 average since May 2 could undermine the Yankees in the postseason.

“(Jeter) is killing them right now,” the scout said. Harsh as that assessment might be, it’s not far from the truth. Jeter’s performance in Friday’s 13-inning, 6-5 loss to the Rangers was especially disturbing to the coaching staff: he went 1-for-7 and looked overmatched in his final two at-bats, striking out and grounding out weakly to second base with the game on the line.

Jeter appears unbalanced in the batter’s box, unsteady, seemingly unable to decide where his hands should be – near the helmet as they were in his prime, or down lower, where older players find it easier to start their swings against harder-throwing pitchers.

Jeter admitted Friday he’s “still searching” for that signature hot streak. Until it comes, however, the numbers are damning: Jeter entered Saturday 7-for-his-last-61 (.115) and on his way to setting the single-season record for ground balls (368 by Juan Pierre in 2003).

Jeter’s 324 grounders represent an ongoing struggle to lift the ball with authority: in 2002, his line drive ratio was nearly 25 percent. this year, that ratio has sunk to 15.9. more than 66 percent of Jeter’s batted balls are on the ground, a career high.

The data raises three questions for Girardi to consider.

Is Jeter tired? It’s possible, even probable, given that at 36, he’s currently the majors’ oldest shortstop. if Girardi believes fatigue is a factor, he could take the bold step of benching him again on Sunday, although back-to-back absences certainly would embarrass the captain. So far, Girardi has showed no inclination to provoke the most popular Yankee of this generation.

Is Jeter hurt? he was batting .333 on May 1, which means, statistically, there’s a line of demarcation. but if Jeter suffered an injury, he’s kept it a secret from the coaching staff. no one, from Girardi to the trainers to senior officials like Brian Cashman, has heard a whisper of a physical problem.

Has Jeter hit the wall? While he clearly is in his decline phase, it’s hard to believe he’s lost all his skills. Jeter after all, enjoyed a terrific bounce-back season in 2009, batting .334, his best average in a decade. he rolled that over into the first part of this season.

It’s almost unheard of for an elite-caliber hitter to spontaneously lose his bat speed. Robbie Alomar was the exception, practically disappearing after the 2001 season; his average dropped 70 points the next year with the Mets, and he never recovered.

Alomar was two years younger than Jeter, so it wasn’t until 2004 that he finally came to terms with his mediocrity. the Yankees don’t have that long to evaluate Jeter, considering the Division Series is only three weeks away. the pressure is on Girardi to decide where Jeter hits in October, just as the Steinbrenner family will be hard-pressed to calculate Jeter’s worth as a free agent this winter.

As much as Jeter has meant to the Yankees’ golden era, ownership has to find a balance between the shortstop’s legacy and his projected future. That’s why rival executives say they’ll be watching the Yankees’ negotiating tactics this winter with fascination.

Ask the team’s power brokers what kind of contract Jeter deserves, and you get that hopeless, don’t-ask expression – the kind that needs no other translation.

NEWS ITEM: Johan Santana faces shoulder surgery.

Has any Met team endured an uglier run of PR nightmares? first, there was Francisco Rodriguez’s arrest for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend’s father. Then the blow-off of the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital by Carlos Beltran, Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez. and now Santana’s 2011 season is in jeopardy after he suffered a tear in the anterior capsule of his throwing shoulder.

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