When the Yankees first handed out numbers to their players they did so based on their regular spot in the batting order. That's why Babe Ruth wore three and Lou Gehrig wore four. For years it has seemed like they did the same with Derek Jeter. Despite excellent on-base percentages, Jeter has almost always batted second in lineup cards filled out by Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.
Not anymore, however. Jeter led off today's exhibition game with the Phillies, a move that's expected to be permanent. Johnny Damon slides to the second spot as a result, followed by Mark Teixeira and, eventually, Alex Rodriguez. Anthony Rieber of Newsdayposits that the move was Girardi's attempt to light a fire under Jeter, who had his worst offensive season in 2008 and is at an age where a precipitous decline could be around any corner.
That doesn't hold up to scrutiny, however. Damon, who is older than Jeter, may have had a better on-base percentage than Jeter in 2008, but over their careers Jeter has a 30 point edge in that statistic. Damon may see a few more pitches, which helps his teammates, but they'll still get that help with him batting second. If Jeter gets on base at a high clip, that makes for a doubly beneficial top of the order for the Yankees.
There are other pluses. Brett Gardner looks like he'll be the regular center fielder. Gardner's a lefty and will bat ninth, so Jeter's presence splits up two lefties to make the order a bit more difficult for opposing managers to deal with late in games. Jeter's played a lot of hit-and-run in his days, which could be a real weapon when Gardner's on first base.
Another plus is that having Jeter lead off the game means that we'll never have to see him bunt in a 0-0 game with Damon on first or second base. It's been a maddening trait of the captain's for far too long. A poor offensive play that is misconstrued as a selfless act of sacrifice for his teammates.
Finally, there's the realities of Jeter's game. While his on-base percentage remained good in 2008, his slugging percentage went way south to .408. That's 50 points off his career average, so it may not make sense to have Jeter playing in a traditional run-producing spot any longer. Jeter isn't going to be the player he was 10 years ago, nor the one he was five years ago, but he still does enough well to help your lineup if used correctly.