When Derek Jeter‘s ankle finally gave out in the top of the 12th inning in Game One of last year’s ALCS, I actually breathed a sigh of relief. The Yankee offense was struggling, and it took Jose Valverde throwing two inexplicably awful pitches just to wriggle them out of a four-run 9th inning hole. At the time of Jeter’s injury, his batting average in their six playoff games was second on the team only to Raul Ibanez, and would wind up first when Detroit’s sweep was all said and done. To me, Jeter’s constant on-base skills in the leadoff spot set the tone for the lineup all year — and his injury, while not providing an excuse for any other players, magnified the rest of the hitters’ problems, and bizarrely made their inability to score runs more palatable.

There was a second reason, or so I thought, that I felt relieved at that point. It doesn’t need to be said on this website (though I’ll restate it just to set things up) that more often than not over the last 17 years, specifically the last 10 or so, Jeter’s defense at shortstop has been by far the weakest part of his game. And so when he got injured, I started to put it together in my head: soon to be 39 + history of poor defensive play + broken ankle + unwillingness to play another position + continued offensive success = the Yankees’ designated hitter for 2013. If team management made such a move, it would provide a built-in impetus to transition an aging Jeter either off the shortstop position or into a not-quite-full-time role. I shared this master plan with just about anyone who would listen over the next four or five days, until about the fourth inning of Game Four when I stopped caring for a while.

Now it’s January, and it’s almost too late to start caring again.

Because if the Yankees were thinking what I was thinking, they would have acted by now. Various reports essentially credited them with doing “due diligence” on Stephen Drew and Marco Scutaro before those two signed with the Red Sox and Giants, respectively…but clearly, inking a Major League-caliber shortstop as insurance for Jeter was not a priority this offseason. And once the Alex Rodriguez hip news came through, I’m sure the team’s philosophy (rightfully so) turned toward clearing as much DH space as possible for A-Rod over the next five years.

Jeter, as one would expect of The Captain, has said he’ll be ready for Opening Day, and I believe him. But the what-ifs are too strong to ignore. What if he’s NOT ready? What if he has less range of motion in the ankle, making him even more defensively deficient than normal? He’ll be 39 in June; will he be able to recover as easily as he did when he separated his shoulder ten years ago? What if playing the field affects his offense — specifically baserunning, which may be his strongest asset? Most Yankee fans would never bet against Derek Jeter, but even if it’s him standing between Kevin Youkilis and Robinson Cano on April 1st in Yankee Stadium, how effective of a fielder do you really think he’ll be?

Even with all these questions, the Yankees remain no better off at shortstop than they were in that 12th inning of Game One last October. In fact, they may be worse. Jayson Nix, who made the last out of that ALCS, has been sent to Triple-A, and two weeks ago we got this Brian Cashman quote from ESPN New York on Eduardo Nunez:

“We have everyday guys at other positions. If he makes our club, it will be at a utility role.”

That’s an about-face from last summer, when the Yankees had Nunez play exclusively as a shortstop while working his way back from injury in the minors. Since there’s been talk about Nunie DHing a good amount, the Yankees must feel he can provide enough offense to be a near-everyday player. But they can’t be confident about his defense until he shows some consistent, in-game improvement.

Which brings me to the most ominous question of all: who would you rather have playing short on Opening Day? The 38-year-old with already limited range coming off ankle surgery, or the 25-year-old who’s made 18 errors in the equivalent of about 60 full Major League games at the position? That’s not a very small sample size, and still it equates to nearly 50 errors over 162 games. The remaining free agent pool reads like this: Jason Bartlett, Ronny Cedeno, Alex Gonzalez. There are no feasible Minor League options. And I’m not working the phones in the front office, but I can’t imagine the trade market is much better. Derek Jeter has proven himself to be a heck of a dependable player, but right now I’m not comfortable with the degree to which the Yankees are depending on a healthy and effective Jeter for 2013. Because unfortunately, he’s all they’ve got.

So what say you? If the Yankees enter the season with a compromised Captain, what’s the least of the available evils?