Does Derek Jeter Have Anything Left?

Even the most devoted fans of the Yankees and their star shortstop Derek Jeter likely recognized that 2009 was a special year for the Yankee captain. Jeter’s 2009 was probably the best season by a 35 year old shortstop in at least half a century. Few serious fans could have expected another year like that from Jeter. However, as the 2010 season approached, which would be the last under Jeter’s current contract, most fans had a sense of what Jeter’s future would be.

It seemed clear that after 2010 Jeter would sign an enormous contract at $20+ million per year for four to six years, largely as a reward to previous contributions to the Yankees and to ensure that Jeter would retire in pinstripes. Jeter would have played through 2011, or at best 2012, as a full time shortstop before finishing his career as a more or less league average outfield/DH type. This would have meant paying a lot for a somewhat valuable offensive player with decreasing defensive value. By the end of the contract, Jeter would have retired the all time Yankee leader in games, hits and stolen bases, and perhaps even runs, doubles and total bases.

One quarter of the way into the 2010 season, however, it is necessary to question these assumptions. Jeter is hitting .276/.320/.396. Those numbers are .040-.070 below his career figures. If the season ended today, Jeter would have the lowest on base percentage, slugging percentage and batting average of any season since his 15 game cup of coffee in 1995. A season like this from a 36 year old would be hard to write off as simply a fluke off year and make it necessary to revisit questions about Jeter’s future offensive value.

A bad offensive 2010, by Jeter, would change everything for both the Yankees and Jeter and present a real dilemma for the Yankees. While the Yankees can afford to overpay for a useful offensive player with limited defensive value, which is where they thought Jeter would be two or three years from now, it makes far less sense to pay that kind of money for a player whose offensive skills may be in sharp decline and whose defense is not going to be stellar. That is the direction in which Jeter may be heading. The Yankees have prepared themselves for a Jeter who can no longer play shortstop, but a Jeter who can no longer hit raises much bigger problems.

If Jeter continues to hit so poorly, the short term rational decision for the Yankees to make would be to offer Jeter a far smaller contract after this year, but there is a certain myopia in that as well. The Yankee mystique may be nonsense, but it is lucrative nonsense; and Jeter represents a big part of that mystique. Keeping Jeter in pinstripes for his entire career therefore takes on a measure of import beyond simply immediate baseball questions. Jeter, the greatest Yankee since Mickey Mantle, is expected to join Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and a small handful of others as all-time great players, which will also probably include Mariano Rivera, who spent their entire careers with the Yankees. If this does not happen, many casual fans will be angry with the team, but if the only way to do this is by overpaying for a poor fielding backup infielder, the Yankees will have no good options.

The dilemma exists for Jeter as well. He is worth more to the Yankees than to other teams, but he also benefits from spending his whole career with the Yankees. This suggests that there is ample economic space for the Yankees and Jeter to come to an agreement. The baseball questions, however, are not so simple. Jeter has carefully created an image for himself as the consummate team player, but this will be rapidly undermined if he spends the last part of his career chasing milestones and records while collecting a big paycheck while hurting his team. Moreover, if the Yankees feel compelled to play Jeter due to his fame and big contract from 2011-2013, despite what may be seriously declining offensive skills, the team will be weaker for it.

It is, of course, possible that Jeter will turn this season around, raise his OBP back to the .380 range and reclaim his position as one of the best hitting shortstops and leadoff hitters in baseball. That would force the Yankees hand in the post-season and make expectations about Jeter’s continuing to be a valuable hitter more realistic. If that does not happen soon, the Yankees and Jeter will both have a tough decision with no easy way out.