MINNEAPOLIS -- The latest stop of the Derek Jeter farewell tour left players shaking their heads. Who can imagine the Yankees without Jeter at shortstop?
But as the 40-year-old chugs through his final year, there is another variation of that question that merits consideration: What if he'd never been the Yankees' shortstop in the first place?
There was a time when that hard-to-imagine scenario was a real possibility, if not a likelihood.
While the Yankees selected Jeter as a shortstop out of Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1992, his defensive struggles at the start of his professional career were profound. He committed 21 errors in 57 games in his pro debut after being drafted, and then in his first full season of pro ball he committed an almost unfathomable 56 errors in 126 games as a 19-year-old in Single-A Greensboro.
On the field, he did not show the frustrations of his miscues, but off of it, he has admitted in his autobiography, he cried nightly.
Questions about his future had to be asked.
"I think that in all organizations, and the Yankees were no different, we had meetings all the time on our personnel -- every player in our camp, every player in our instructional league, especially because those are invites. There was always talk about can he play this position -- not just Derek at shortstop but everybody," Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield, a minor league instructor in the Yankees organization during Jeter's ascent, recently recalled. "There was a lot of talk.
"Early on, I think that there were people that weren't able to watch closely enough who said, 'Maybe we ought to think about moving him to the outfield because the running speed is there.' He was a long-bodied, you could see him 6-feet-1, he was a good athlete, didn't quite know what to do with his feet and his hands as an infielder. That took some time. I think that's the way it is with a lot of young shortstops until they figure out what to do with their feet."
In the fall of 1993, after that struggle at Greensboro, Butterfield had a chance to mold the 19-year-old. The shortstop had suffered an injury that prevented him from being able to hit in instructional league, allowing him to focus solely on his defensive work.
Was he a big league-caliber shortstop as those player development conversations were taking place during that instructional league season? No. He looked, in Butterfield's words, like a "baby Doberman," trying to figure out how to move with grace rather than falling all over himself.
But Butterfield and others in player development were adamant in the face of those who had doubts about Jeter's future at shortstop: He had the tools to achieve profound improvement and to emerge as a shortstop.
"I think it's real important with a guy like Derek Jeter that even though you don't see the refinement yet, you can envision it. You can use your imagination on what it's going to be like with some good instruction and a lot of repetition at A-ball and even Double-A, and you'll see that rapid improvement after a while.
"I think there was enough of a consensus that people believed in -- they believed in his work ethic, they believed in his aptitude, they believed everybody saw firsthand that he wanted to be a great player just by the way he prepared and the way he did extra stuff. He was highly intelligent," Butterfield continued. "There are some prerequisites for that position -- toughness, intelligence and unselfishness. He certainly had all three of those. I think there was enough of a consensus in the Yankees organization where we said, 'No. We know that kids are going to make errors at shortstop.' We saw the climb. His curve was going this way. It is a process. it does take time. But he was getting better."
By the next year, as he zoomed across three levels, hitting .344/.410/.463 in High-A, Double-A and Triple-A, Jeter also experienced a defensive breakthrough, committing 25 errors in 138 games. His actions were becoming more efficient, his movements had loosened to permit him to show a shortstop's range and put himself in good position to throw the ball.
"You could see that there was definite improvement. He was a more consistent guy. He was able to catch the ball better and able to throw it more accurately," said Butterfield. "After that second year, there weren't a lot of conversations [about his position] after that. I think everyone was on board with it and really believed he could be a good major league shortstop."
Part of what made Jeter good was his determination to remain at shortstop and his willingness to put in the work to stay there. Though his size was atypical for the position, he exhibited a conviction in his future at the position, and the Yankees resisted any temptation to introduce uncertainty about what he might be able to do at the position.
Ultimately, Jeter become the iconic shortstop for a baseball generation.
"Derek Jeter has been my idol for a long time. I wear No. 2 because of him," noted Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. "He's a professional in every sense of the word and I look up to him."
Like Jeter, there were times when Tulowitzki faced questions about his positional future. And like Jeter, Tulowitzki was determined to fight any perceptions that his enormous frame would not allow him to remain at the position where he'd forged his baseball-playing identity.
"Cal Ripken comes to mind as the one that kind of allowed us to play shortstop, the bigger guys. But coming out of college, I was a bigger shortstop and they said, 'We might have to move this guy to third,' " Tulowitzki recalled. "Hopefully I've proved the critics wrong who wanted to move me, but my plan is to always stay there and not move.
"More so than any other position on the field, shortstops take [their position-playing identity] to heart. When guys get moved to third, they take it as a punch in the gut. I would do the same thing. I want to stay at shortstop. I want to be there for a long time, hopefully my whole career."
Tulowitzki -- whose 949 big league games have all come at shortstop, without even a single day as a DH -- made clear that, if asked to move to third, he would have waged a ferocious campaign of resistance.
"If someone had said that [about a move to third base] to me, there would have been a big argument. I'm going to stay here and I'm going to prove you wrong," said Tulowitzki. "It's something that I wouldn't do personally. I'm a shortstop at heart. That's what I take passion in. That's what I put in all my workouts in the offseason, which are designed to play the shortstop position."
Jeter has played more games at shortstop -- without ever being moved to another defensive position even for a single day -- than any player in baseball history. Tulowitzki likewise has never spent a day off of his position.
Their paths raise some question about that of another No. 2, Xander Bogaerts. Though the 21-year-old believes strongly in his ability to play shortstop in the big leagues, he was enthusiastic about getting exposure to third base in 2013 in order to hasten his path to the big leagues. The move did just that, and Bogaerts became a key contributor to a championship while playing third.
This year, the Sox committed to him at shortstop only in the spring. But when Will Middlebrooks suffered his fractured finger, the team moved Bogaerts to third in June to accommodate the signing of Stephen Drew.
Tulowitzki speculated that such a move might feel like a punch to the gut; at the time of the decision Bogaerts looked like someone who had experienced it in precisely such fashion. Even so, the team has remained adamant that the offensive struggles that commenced shortly after the move to third have been unrelated to the position change (Bogaerts did homer in his first two games at third), a notion echoed by both Bogaerts and his agent, Scott Boras (who, it is necessary to note, also represents Drew).
"[The idea that Bogaerts' struggles this year are related to his move to third] would be statistically undocumented because his great performance last year was at third base," said Boras. "Those are decisions that have a lot to do with a lot of other things than Stephen Drew and Xander Bogaerts. When teams make that decision, at the end of the day they're trying to put a complement of players on the field that are the best nine they've got, and that's I'm sure why they said that.
"The biggest thing is the transition to the big leagues where everybody tests to see if you can hit the fastball. Also, you're coming into the league and have a broad base of expectancy that you're going to be successful, but you've got to learn how to hit the breaking balls. You've got to see breaking balls. And you've got to really see the slider. You've got to learn how to hit the slider your way," said Boras. "That takes time. It takes practice. And it takes him going through, because you don't see those types of sliders in the minor leagues. You don't see the type of velocity irregularity between a changeup and a fastball in the minor leagues, because the few that can do that are up here.
"He's making that adjustment, and I said it last year when he was doing well and I'll say it now, he's a generational player. He's in that category of the Trouts and the Harpers and the Machados. Xander Bogaerts fits right into that group. He's a great, great young player who showed on the most pressurized stage, the World Series stage, that he's a baseball player of extraordinary skills. You have kids who are in junior college that are his age that are playing in the World Series and doing big things. He's just that kind of guy."
But if that does happen, at what position might it happen? Bogaerts now faces questions that are different than the ones experienced by Jeter and Tulowitzki -- ones that are based on actual decisions to move him off of shortstop rather than theoretical conversations about whether he profiled for the position.
How does Bogaerts quiet the blare of confusion related to positional uncertainty never faced as professionals by Tulowitzki or Jeter? How does he get better as a shortstop at a time when he's taking all of his ground balls at short?
"I don't know the answer to that. I do know that sometimes it helps guys to be able to play another position. Maybe it helps them to sit back and see another guy play that position," said Butterfield. "They become more of a baseball player, more of a complete player. I don't think it's going to prohibit him or slow him down once we decide that he's going to go back to shortstop and become a shortstop. I think he will be able to pick that up quicker than he's been able to pick it up last year or the year before.
"He's had some quality reps at shortstop at the big league level. I think that he got to a point before we made that move, you could see the look, the approach, the way he attacked things -- you could tell, you'd see that bubble over his head saying, 'I can do this.' That's real important. When you see guys believe, doing things with a lot of conviction, that's when you know that they're turning the corner. I think that he'll get to that point."
With the Sox' hopes of contention reduced to a longshot (even if not an impossibility, given the damaged shape of the division) by their poor first half, a case can be made that no issue is more important to the Sox than positioning their prospects to succeed in the big leagues. And how the team approaches that matter with Bogaerts -- and at which position on the diamond -- ultimately will loom as one of the most significant storylines of the second half.
At a time when Jeter is taking bows on a farewell tour, Bogaerts resides at the opposite end of the spectrum, with both spectacular successes (last year's postseason, the first two months of this year) on his resume and struggles that exceeded anything that either Bogaerts or any evaluator could have anticipated in early June. As he tries to provide definition to his career path, he could do worse than to look at the uncertain initial steps that Jeter took.