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Now Linked to the Past, What is Jeter’s Future?

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John Harper of The New York Daily News ponders what’s next for the Captain:

Jeter truly should be celebrated for his classy manner as well as his achievement. The passing of Gehrig’s hit total is an especially feel-good moment for him because he is having an MVP-caliber season that has put to rest any notion that his shelf life as a shortstop is expiring.

Still, the timing of the Gehrig milestone does make you wonder about where this is all headed for Jeter, at 35, with his contract expiring after next season and the potential for controversy over whether he will eventually be asked to change positions.

Or to put it another way: does there come a point when doing the right thing, putting team ahead of self, clashes with Jeter’s apparent desire to play shortstop forever?

History says it could be a most delicate situation.

Cal Ripken was 36 when the Orioles asked him to move to third base during the 1996 season, a move he so resented at first that he reportedly wouldn’t talk to his replacement at short, Manny Alexander.

Ozzie Smith, perhaps the greatest defensive shortstop in baseball history, wasn’t asked to change positions at the end, but at 41 he feuded with Tony LaRussa over essentially being pushed out in 1996 for Royce Clayton. Feelings were so bruised that Smith and LaRussa still don’t speak.

Luis Aparicio, the man whose record for most career hits as a shortstop Jeter passed earlier this season, played short to the end, retiring at age 39, while perhaps the best glove man in recent years, Omar Vizquel, has hung on as a utility infielder in his 40s, filling in at second, third, and short this year at age 42 for the Rangers.

This is a topic that has been swirling around YankeeLand for the last year or so.  Over the winter, I wrote a piece along with some beat writers asking what would happen when Jeter’s contract is over.  At the time, Jeter was coming off of a merely average season, his third year in a row of declining numbers.

Jeter also has never posted great defensive numbers, despite what your eyes might tell you.  This year is the first time Jeter has posted defensive ratings above league average.

The questions remain: how long can Jeter keep it up and how much should the Yankees pay him to try?

By all measures, Jeter is earning his keep this season.  He will garner many an MVP vote and rightfully so, although Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins is having a phenomenal year at the catching position.

The elephant in the room, though, is Jeter’s former sleepover buddy, Alex Rodriguez.

ARod signed a ten year, $275 million dollar contract before the start of the 2008 season.  Simple math tells us that averages to about $27.5 million a year, although the contract is actually front loaded a bit.

But the precedent has been set and the Yankees and Derek Jeter have to ask themselves if Jeter can really be signed to a contract that has less annual value than ARod.

Jeter can not sign a ten year deal at this stage.  He signed his big 10 year deal before the 2001 season, which comes due after 2010, and signing him through the age of 47 is a ridiculous thought.  Even a seven year deal through the age of 44 is pushing it.

Jeter can force the issue of the annual salary at a shorter length and he probably should.  ARod was a publicity liability before he signed his mega-deal after opting out during the 2007 World Series.  Since then, he’s gone through an ugly public divorce and admitted steroid use.

Jeter is the model citizen as far as the public is concerned.  He’s worn the pinstripes with pride and dignity.  He’s made himself the poster boy for Major League Baseball and how the game is supposed to be played.  He’s on the verge of reaching 3000 hits, a feat that should occur early in the 2011 assuming Jeter stays healthy.

And as we learned this past week, the Yankees have never had a player with 3000 hits.  It would be apropos, to say the least, if Derek Jeter were that player.

As Harper notes, the other issue that looms is whether Jeter can finish his career playing shortstop.  Jeter can claim that the defensive metrics don’t bother him, but it’s no coincidence that his defense improved as the whispers about his ability grew louder.  He acknowledged as much a few springs ago, stating he had worked on his flexibility and range.

How long can Jeter’s new found ability last?  He will be 37 the first year of his next contract.  Can we really expect Jeter to continue to play defense above his previous level going into his forties?

Probably not.  Most players see their defensive numbers go up and down from year to year.  It’s not unlike offensive numbers in a lot of ways: some years are good, other years not so good.  The older Jeter gets, the more difficult it will be to get his body to respond the way he wants.

At that point, Jeter will have a conundrum that Harper states very well: “does there come a point when doing the right thing, putting team ahead of self, clashes with Jeter’s apparent desire to play shortstop forever?”

The big problem here for the Yankees is where Jeter is most valuable for them.  An average to above average defensive shortstop with great offensive numbers is a diamond in the rough.  Those types of players are just too rare to pass up as shortstop is typically a more defensive position.  Getting an extra boost of offense from a defensive postion gives your lineup more depth, assuming you are getting good production from your power positions, like the corner outfield spots, first base, third base, etc.

If Jeter eventually has to move from shortstop to another position like left field, suddenly his value diminishes.  While it would be difficult to find another shortstop with Jeter’s offensive numbers, it’s not that hard to find an outfielder who hits like Jeter.  In that situation, Jeter would be making Manny Ramirez type money for Johnny Damon like production.  Even the Yankees don’t want to overpay for that.

The best option might be for Jeter to sign a four year deal that is front loaded like ARod’s.  The annual value for the first two years could be around $30 million, then drop down to $25 million the last two, making a nice annual average of $27.5 million, just like ARod.

It still seems like a lot, but Jeter is the face of the franchise.  His number is on half the backs of people visiting Yankee Stadium.  He probably generates more income for this team off the field than he does on.

Let’s just hope Jeter’s love for the team supersedes his love for the shortstop position.

Scott Ham blogs about the Yankees here and at TheBronxView.com. He also hosts The Bronx View Yankee Podcast.  He can be reached at feedback@thebronxview.com.

Categories: General
Scott Ham

2 Responses

  1. Scott Ham says:

    I agree with you.

    I will say this about Tejada:

    1) Jeter has been the better hitter. Tejada’s best years appear to be behind him while Jeter is in the MVP talk this season. Jeter has had a significantly better OBP throughout his career.

    2) Tejada has been named in the Mitchell Report.

    From that standpoint, I would have to give the edge to Jeter.

    I like Jeter but I am by no means a Jeter lover by any stretch. I had him pegged for serious decline this year and am pretty surprised by the year he’s had.

    I’ve found the hoopla surrounding this record to be a bit silly, but then, he’s been the foundation of the franchise for a long time. People want to celebrate him and I can’t argue with that.

    I just wish the YES Network would pull back on it a bit.

  2. Bemused says:

    Why is this “record” such a big deal? Because it’s the Yankees.

    I am not a Yankee hater by any means, but this is solely a team record. And it’s taken him almost 600 more at-bats to hit the number than the estimable Columbia alum.

    Miguel Tejada is every bit the player that Jeter is–look at the numbers.

    Yankee fans will say, How many rings does Tejada have?”

    And I will say, “The same number as Don Mattingly.”