Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees and the Absence of Alternatives

The Derek Jeter saga, which is the off-season’s biggest storyline so far, has taken on a new dimension as both sides have begun focusing on a media strategy both to strengthen their respective bargaining positions and to try to preemptively establish a narrative for why they are right should negotiations break down and Jeter fail to resign. Jeter and his agents Casey Close has sought to portray Jeter as patient and rational and the Yankees as ungrateful and unreasonable. The Yankees, for their part, have sought to present themselves as generously offering Jeter well over market value and far more than any other team would give him. The Yankees want to make sure that if they do not resign Jeter, they will not take a big media hit, while Jeter wants to make sure that his reputation will not suffer if he turns down the Yankees and goes somewhere else.

This battle over spin is moderately interesting, but has come to obscure three other important angles of the Jeter negotiation. First, the Yankees have backed themselves into a bit of a corner because they have no options other than Jeter at shortstop. While the Yankees, nor anybody else, cannot be expected to develop a player of Jeter’s ability more than once a generation or so, the failure of the Yankees to have anybody in the organization that can play shortstop passably well while hitting at a league average level for that position, means they have very limited non-Jeter options, thus strengthening Jeter’s bargaining position.

Because the Yankees publicly claim to try to win the World Series every year, they cannot afford a year or two of Ramiro Pena or Eduardo Nunez at shortstop and still expect to contend. This makes it more urgent for the Yankees to resign Jeter. While 2010 was clearly and off year for Jeter, he still had the 11th highest OPS+ of any player that played more than 100 games at shortstop in 2010. If the Yankees lose Jeter they will go from above average at shortstop to well below average at that position, forcing them to upgrade at another position to make up for that loss.

A second overlooked angle is that absence of any interest in Jeter from teams other than the Yankees. There have been almost no rumors of Jeter going anywhere else. Few fans, bloggers or columnists are advocating for their favorite team to sign Jeter. This is at least somewhat due to the likelihood that Jeter will stay with the Yankees and the unwillingness of other teams to overpay the way the Yankees have made it clear they will. It is still, however, a sign that Jeter is no longer viewed as a real star who can help any team. This dramatically weakens Jeter’s bargaining position because, given the lack of interest from other teams, choosing an offer from somebody other than the Yankees could mean a difference of as much as $20 million or more in salary. The Yankees preliminary offer of three years at $45 million, while unacceptable to Jeter, may be as much as twice what any other team would offer Jeter. Accordingly, Jeter’s decision may come down to a fight between his ego and his pocketbook.

The third, and perhaps most puzzling issue that has received very little media attention is that Jeter is not the only Cooperstown bound Yankee legend who has never played for any other organization facing free agency this off-season. Mariano Rivera, unlike Jeter, is coming off another excellent season and is still one of the very best in the game at his position. While Rivera’s innings pitched declined to only 60, he still managed to save 33 games, posting an ERA of 1.80, while striking out 45 and walking only 11. Rivera also again demonstrated his value in the post-season pitching 6.1 innings, allowing only four base runners and no runs. Yankee fans are undoubtedly hoping that the absence of any drama surrounding Rivera means that the Yankees are committed to keeping their incomparable closer, but the absence of any news about this is notable.

The economic logic of Jeter coming back to the Yankees remains quite strong especially because neither Jeter nor the Yankees have any other real options. The messages coming from both sides seem more about trying to influence the final offer by a few million dollars one way or the other than really exploring alternatives. Nonetheless, these public spats can get nasty quickly. If the fight gets so bad that negotiations collapse, the real loser will be Jeter who will have to sign somewhere else for a lot less money. The Yankees will also be worse off in the short run, because they will be weaker at shortstop. Perhaps that would lead them to taking a year or two and rebuilding rather than overpaying for other free agents after losing Jeter, but that is not the Yankee way either.