New York Yankees: The Captain Conundrum of 2011 and Beyond
We've seen it throughout the years, as teams encounter difficult decisions, when long-serving veterans and fan-favorites enter the inevitable, athletic decline phase of their careers.
No one can escape the clutches of the dreaded father time, when a player's body simply cannot do the same things that it could during the prime of his youth. Maybe it's the eyesight, maybe the legs feel heavier and the footwork slower, the hands a tick behind Major League fastballs.
For all their apparent super-human qualities, athletes face a rather dramatic fall from grace as they enter the winter of their playing days. The physical gifts that set them apart from mere mortals begin to fade, rendering them human once again as they prepare for life after professional sports.
This is the critical juncture at which teams must decide between loyal sentimentality, and doing what is collectively beneficial for the future of their organization. Does it best serve the team to reward a player for his past contributions and commitment to the cause; or is it worth it to risk the wrath of the fans by severing ties with a long-standing member of the squad?
In recent seasons, the Yankees have struggled with this scenario, as various older members of the team have come up for contract renewal. Being the Yankees, the financial restrictions that face most other teams don't necessarily come into play. The team has had the ability to retain veterans, even at inflated prices, when many other teams would have been forced into saying their goodbyes.
From the other side of the AL East divide, we have fairly recently witnessed the Boston Red Sox cut ties with several critical players whom they either felt no longer fit into the long-term vision, or simply didn't warrant the commitment in dollars and years that the players were seeking. Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon were allowed to walk in free agency, when management reached the decision that neither were critical to the team's future at the free agent costs that they were likely to command. Manny and Nomar were both traded away mid-season in an effort to reduce existing tensions and potentially bolster the team's likelihood of advancing deep into the post-season.
Of course, as great as some of those Red Sox players were, none of them were Derek Jeter.
Following the bright lights and crisp nights of October baseball, and the potential defense of their World Series title, the Yankees will find themselves embroiled in contract negotiations to determine the future of their homegrown captain and most popular player.
No one in their right mind truly believes that Derek Jeter is going to play for another baseball team in 2011. The prospect is nearly inconceivable. Try imagining the Yankee captain and short-stop of 16 seasons in a different uniform than the familiar pinstripes or road grays. It's tough to even trick your mind into entertaining the notion without it reverting to images of Jeter in Yankee pinstripes. Even during the World Baseball Classic, seeing the face of the New York Yankees in the Team USA jersey didn't seem quite right.
That's what makes this scenario so difficult to handle for the team. Derek Jeter is the captain, the face of the Yankee's most recent run of success, bridging the gap between the Joe Torre era and the 2009 Championship squad. Jeter is arguably the most recognizable and marketable player in all of Major League Baseball. His value extends far beyond the diamond.
However, regardless of a player's leadership, marketability and various intangible qualities, a team must seriously consider how much to factor in those issues while evaluating a player's future value as his playing skills inevitably deteriorate.
After watching Jeter produce one of his finest seasons in 2009, en route to the Yankees' fifth World Series ring during his tenure, it seemed as if this immortal would continue on his established path toward Cooperstown forever.
Many fans figured the team would bypass the team's consistent practice of waiting until a contract is over, before negotiating an extension in the off-season, thereby alleviating the pressure on Jeter to perform in a "contract year", and rewarding him for his faithful allegiance to the Yankee cause. The team however, steadfastly refused to deviate from their plan, preferring to wait until Jeter's contract expired after the 2010 season, before even considering renewing his deal.
Then the 2010 season happened.
Undoubtedly, the Yankees would have preferred another Hall of Fame caliber season from Derek Jeter this year, but his significant decline in performance during 2010, has given the decision to wait on any contract decisions an appearance of a masterstroke by management. By declining to sign him immediately following an MVP-caliber season in 2009, the team likely saved themselves many millions of dollars of future financial commitment to Derek Jeter beyond 2010.
Aside from perhaps saving the team a significant amount of money, Derek Jeter's sudden descent into normalcy is prompting several questions in regards to Jeter's future with the Yankees.
Standing at 2,893 career hits, with just over 30 games remaining this season, Jeter is in prime position to join the 3,000 hit club sometime during the first half of 2011. Considering that he is already the Yankee's all-time hits leader, and the fact that not one player has ever accomplished the feat as a Yankee, fans can rest assured that he will continue his pursuit of history in the Bronx.
The outside chance that he could someday challenge Pete Rose's all-time record of 4,296 looms as a potential goal, however unlikely it may be. If Jeter were so inclined to chase down that lofty ambition, that would likely throw significant doubt upon his ability to remain a Yankee, as they would have trouble committing to such a long-term pursuit, even for Derek Jeter.
1,403 hits is a rather long way away for a 36-year-old ball-player though, so we'll save that dream for another day.
In the likely scenario that the Yankees do retain the services of Derek Sanderson Jeter, the question then becomes, "what is his position?"
Since claiming the Yankee short-stop duties from Tony Fernandez before the 1996 season, Jeter has made the spot his own, rarely missing much time aside from a freak injury on Opening Day 2003. The 11-time All-Star even withstood the arrival of former MVP Alex Rodriguez, who, while many thought he was the superior short-stop, moved to third in deference to Derek Jeter.
The image of Derek Jeter manning short-stop for the Yankees is as familiar as any in modern baseball. Realistically though, how much longer can we expect to see him jog out to his position on a daily basis?
Jeter has long been criticized for his defensive shortcomings, despite the fact that he has thus far been awarded four Rawlings Gold Glove awards. Critics have gone so far as to call him "the least effective defensive player at any position in baseball." As we all have likely witnessed, Gold Gloves are often awarded to solid fielders who also happen to hit well, so they are not necessarily a precise indicator of a player's fielding ability. However, the assessment that he may be "the least effective defensive player at any position," would lead me to wonder if Bill James and his statistical gurus hadn't somehow missed out on a bunch of other terrible fielders over the course of their analysis.
I feel that the truth lies somewhere between Gold Glove caliber and the absolutely atrocious level that Jeter's detractors would have you believe.
However you rate his defensive prowess, it is a well-documented fact that championship teams rarely include aging starting short-stops. In fact, including the 2009 Yankees, there have only been four teams to win the World Series with a starting short-stop over the age of 35, and last year, Jeter became the first since a 37-year-old Pee Wee Reese won with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955.
Obviously, the 2010 Yankees have no choice but to attempt to defend their World Series title with Jeter at short. Given his impending free agency however, the 2011 and beyond Yankees may find it necessary to explore their available options, rather than keep trying to turn back the hands of time.
If the Yankees make the decision to look elsewhere for a short-stop solution in the near future, then the question becomes, "where else does Jeter fit in with the Yankees?"
The obvious infield positions that Jeter could potentially transition to are unavailable, and on a long-term basis. Third is currently manned by a similarly aging Alex Rodriguez, who clearly isn't going anywhere soon, as his contract with the Yankees runs through 2017. Across the diamond at first-base resides another long-term fixture, Mark Teixeira. He is one of the premier run producers in the league, and signed through 2016, so first is also set through the end of Jeter's career. At second, there is a burgeoning super-star and potential new face of the franchise in Robinson Cano, so the infield options for Jeter appear almost non-existent.
It has always been assumed that Jeter could transition to the outfield once his short-stop days are over, with proponents of that plan citing his general athleticism and skill at tracking fly balls as evidence that he could handle the move adeptly. While that line of reasoning does make some sense, there is no obvious place for Jeter to instantly fill in the outfield either.
Differing from the infield, in that the Yankees outfield is not currently locked down with long-term contracted All-stars, it still presents an issue when pondering Jeter's future. Center-field is basically out of the question, as that is logically the last place you'd want to move your long-time short-stop, who will be going on 37 early next year. Torii Hunter, long regarded as one of the premier defensive outfielders in baseball, was recently moved from his usual center-field to right, in order to accommodate the young, fast and highly athletic Peter Bourjos, one of the Angels' top prospects.
The corner outfield positions, while seemingly more of a fit for someone of Jeter's age and inexperience in the outfield, don't readily offer a simple solution either.
Nick Swisher, under contract through 2011, with a team option for 2012, has revitalized his career in the Bronx, turning himself into a 2010 All-Star after being viewed as a platoon partner for Xavier Nady upon his arrival prior to last season. His game is not without its flaws, but through dedication to side-work with Yankee hitting guru Kevin Long, has vastly improved his offensive approach. Not only has Swisher's effervescent personality made him a fan favorite with the Yankees, but his work ethic has helped transform him into an invaluable member of the team. Unless he experiences a sudden decline in his production, I don't see Swisher going anywhere soon enough to clear space for Jeter either.
Left-field is less of a stable position with the current Yankee squad, but that doesn't mean you can just slot Jeter in there either. Primarily manned by Brett Gardner, with occasional support from Austin Kearns and Marcus Thames, left is also the home of potential Yankee off-season target, Carl Crawford. There are clearly no guarantees that the Yankees will pursue Crawford, but if you're choosing who you want starting in left-field between Jeter and Carl Crawford, it's nearly impossible to make the case for Jeter at this point in his career.
Without even considering potential incoming players, why would Derek Jeter play left-field over Brett Gardner? Gardner is a top-flight defensive outfielder, with blazing speed and incredible range. Offensively, his standard line of .286/.387/.383 with a .770 OPS and OPS+ of 113, compare very favorably with Jeter's .272/.336/.384, .720 OPS and OPS+ of 98. When you consider that Gardner is also 37 of 44 on his stolen base attempts, has a WAR of 3.9 to Jeter's 1.1, and figure that Gardner is making approximately $21.5 million less than Jeter is this year, the comparison becomes almost ridiculous.
Fortunately for Jeter, the list of available free agent short-stops following the 2010 and 2011 seasons, is uninspiring at best, so the decision on whether to move him does not appear imminent. Of course, trades are always a possibility, and you can bet the Yankees will be keeping their eyes on the crop of exciting young short-stops around baseball over the next few years.
There also exists the very real possibility that we are witnessing the sudden emergence of Eduardo Nunez, the 23-year-old Yankee short-stop prospect who is currently filling in at third for the injured Alex Rodriguez. His minor league career has been solid, if unspectacular, but his tools have led some to postulate that the Yankees may already have Jeter's replacement within their ranks. The early returns on his big league debut have been promising, but the small sample size makes it difficult to draw any concrete conclusions about his future at the moment.
It also remains to be seen how self aware Jeter is and how realistic he is about his future with the Yankees. He has always professed his love for the team that he rooted for as a kid, saying that becoming a Yankee was always his greatest dream. As a proud athlete, can he come to grips with the apparent reality that he is no longer the player he was a few years ago? Is he ready to accept a diminished role with the team and for less money than he is used to commanding?
I don't feel that the Yankees are in desperate need of making this decision today, Jeter is still adequately manning short-stop, and they currently have the best record in baseball. It does become difficult to envision Jeter covering enough ground to play the position when considering the next year or two though.
With the talent-laden roster and deep pockets to help absorb mistakes, the Yankees could likely get by with Jeter at short in the near-term, but to expect that to continue beyond 2011 might be a mistake.
I could envision a scenario, in which Jeter plays a few days at short a week, helps cover for the other infielders, Arod, Cano and Teixeira a day or two a week, and also see some time at the corner outfield spots in a platoon situation or simply to provide rest.
He is already playing like a potential platoon partner for either left-handed outfielder, Gardner or Granderson, as he still hits great against left-handed pitching, something neither of the above mentioned players has proven adept at. In 2010, Jeter is hitting a robust .320/.380/.503 with an .883 OPS against lefties, versus his paltry .247/.315/.325, .640 OPS against righties. In my eyes, he appears to be a perfect candidate to shuttle around the infield, and get several starts a week in left against tough left-handed starters.
Jeter has always been a team oriented player, and I don't expect him to suddenly become greedy and demand to play short, while threatening to leave if his demands are not satisfied. Along with being a great player, Jeter's character has never come into question, and I don't envision that becoming an issue now.
The issue of where Jeter should bat in the lineup is becoming more pressing by the day. As the youthfully energetic Rays linger as a constant threat to the Yankees' supremacy, the Bronx Bombers cannot afford to rest on their laurels and expect Jeter to rebound at this point. Earlier in the season, the excuse could be made that he is simply off to a rough start, and his numbers will be where one expects them to be come September. Well, September is here, and Derek Jeter is a consistent out machine. "Captain Clutch" has been anything but in 2010, killing rallies and impeding progress with impatient plate appearances and a stubborn unwillingness to adjust.
Many months ago, I wrote a piece that examined the Yankees' leadoff situation, wondering when Brett Gardner was going to assume his rightful place atop the Yankee lineup. Well, months later, the team finally heeded my impassioned pleas and did the right thing for the team. Unfortunately, Jeter hitting in the #2 spot, doesn't help the team much either. Time after time, his impatient approach has prevented Brett Gardner from utilizing his greatest asset, his base-stealing ability, to get himself into scoring position for the run-producing heart of the order.
At this point, no matter how strong your allegiance to Derek Jeter, it is almost impossible to defend his inclusion in the top of the batting order. Aside from his hot start in April, Jeter has hit .257/.331/.351 with a pathetic .683 OPS and 6 HR with 41 RBI since May 1. Now, we don't expect Derek Jeter to be a slugger, but a .683 OPS for a short-stop whose value lies in his offense is frankly inexcusable.
When his first half ended with his numbers well below his career standards, the prevailing thought was that he'll finish off the season with a strong second half surge like he often does. Unfortunately, the opposite has proven true, as his numbers have further regressed in every single offensive category as the second half has worn on.
Could it simply be a bad year? Of course it could, I've watched far too much baseball over 33 years to completely discount the opinion that it could simply be "one of those years." However, coupled with the fact that he is on his way to 37-years-old, the pattern of his steady decline this year is troubling to say the least.
Derek Jeter is a Bronx fixture, the 11th captain in the esteemed history of the New York Yankees. No one with an interest in the team wants to see him finish his career anywhere else, but at the intersection of East 161st and River Avenue. He is a significant part of Yankee lore, and the thought of him ending his career elsewhere is highly unlikely, even completely ludicrous to some.
While that may be true, the time is coming in the next few months, where the Yankees must decide, not if they want Derek Jeter, but in what capacity and at what cost to the team. A conundrum indeed.