Is Yankee Icon on Career Watch as Performance Starts to Fade?
It was like old times on May 8 as Derek Jeter powered the Yankees past the Texas Rangers. The 36-year-old shortstop went 4-6, hit two homeruns, drove in three runs and stole a base for what was easily his most complete and productive game of the season.
The homeruns were Jeter’s first in 259 at bats, going back to last August. His weekend performance in Detroit raised his average 34 points to .276. Teammates are testifying to the media that the ball is now jumping off his bat during batting practice, and Jeter himself is saying that he now feels comfortable at the plate, which he says means the hits are sure to follow.
This stage of the Derek Jeter career is compelling, as there are facts to consider other than the sudden weekend burst.
At age 36, Jeter plays the most demanding every day position on the field other than catcher. The other great young shortstops of the late 1990s; Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Omar Vizquel, have moved to other positions, the bench, or entirely out of the big leagues.
The second half of the 2010 season was a disaster for him. He hit just two homeruns after July 1, and delivered only 16 other extra base hits in three months. His batting average dropped to .270 despite a .330 start in April.
He got to fewer balls in the field for the third straight year, and according to the advanced metrics on baseball-reference.com he performed as a below average fielder as measured by runs prevented at his position.
The Yankees have certainly noticed that the Derek Jeter career is in decline. Jeter’s contract was up after the 2010 season. That contract paid him $189 million over 10 seasons, including $22.6 million last year.
Sources say that Jeter first asked for a new seven year deal at roughly the same rate. This led to a protracted, public negotiation during which Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman suggested that if Jeter thought he was worth that much then he was free to test the market with other teams.
Cashman knew that was an empty threat, as Jeter’s prestige and tradition had more value to the Yankees than any other team. No other team would or could pay him anything approaching what the Yankees might pay, even if it was less than Jeter wanted.
The parties eventually agreed to a three year contract that will pay Jeter about $16 million each season, with a player option for the fourth year at $8 million plus possible increases for awards and performance that could bump his salary to $17 million for that final year. And while that is still a tremendous amount of money, it is always embarrassing for it to become well known that one’s employer feels that one’s worth is declining.
By any rational measure, Jeter’s skills as a baseball player and the Derek Jeter career in general are on the wane. He is still capable of great games and maybe even the odd excellent month, but the sustained skills he has shown since winning Rookie of the Year in 1996 are no longer there.
The Yankees will benefit from his march to milestones like the 3,000th career hit he will achieve next month if he remains healthy. That Jeter still commands respect in the Yankee clubhouse is evident by seeing how excited his teammates were with his superb game on Mother’s Day, and he still is a credible team spokesman and captain, and in that role takes pressure off his teammates.
For now, with just performance as a measure, Jeter is merely an overpaid former superstar, and there is no shame in that. He has not yet reached the point where he is hurting the Yankees, in part because they do not have a shortstop ready to step in and give them a better performance than what Jeter can still deliver.
The danger will come a year or two from now when the Yankees may pass on a free agent shortstop or a trade for another team’s shortstop in deference to Jeter. Jeter has said he is not interested in changing positions, and the Yankees may not want to pay Jeter $16 million to sit on the bench.
Jeter’s career has been marked by class, dignity, and grace under pressure. His final contribution as a Yankee icon may be to retire in 2013 or 2014, leaving millions on the table, so the Yankees can move forward with someone better able to meet the demands of his position. The last chapter of the Derek Jeter career will be a fascinating process to watch.
Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine, a publication dedicated to the African American community.
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