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Derek and the Yankees

Columns, Featured — By Scott Ham on November 4, 2010 3:12 pm

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for Peter Abraham’s pinch hitters on the LoHud Yankee blog (and followup statistics here). That article discussed the looming two-years-into-the-future contract negotiations of Derek Jeter.

The future is here.

I got a lot of flack from people about that article. Why are you talking about Jeter now, they asked. It’s two years down the road.  How can you predict that he will not be worth whatever they pay him? Look at his 2009 numbers, etc etc etc.

Jeter’s 2009 was great. Fantastic, even.

His 2008? Not so much.  His 2010 even less so.

Why am I writing about this again? Well, for starters, I am going to revisit whether what I said previous turned out to be true. It’s also worth looking to see whether the situation has changed in two years.

The crux of the previous article:

There’s a problem. By today’s standards, Derek Jeter is not a $22 million player and, given his age, never will be again. He has also never been a very good defensive shortstop and, by age 37 in 2011, will be even worse. Jeter needs a new position, but where can he go?

The easiest shift would be to third base, but that should have happened when Alex Rodriguez arrived. First base was just given to Mark Teixeira for eight years. Second base is a lateral shift with no benefit while Jeter’s offensive output doesn’t justify an outfield position. The best place for Jeter to play from an offensive standpoint is shortstop, but his poor defense would create quite a hole on the left side for opposing hitters. A corner outfield spot could be bearable in the right lineup.

From a money standpoint, Jeter should take a paycut. His last three years have seen a steady decline in both OBP and SLG and while that could fluctuate, it wouldn’t be enough to justify $22 million. The Yankees would be smart to work out a contract that rewards career totals. If Jeter plays another five seasons, he could be the Yankees career leader in games, at-bats, plate appearances, runs scored, hits, doubles, and stolen bases, to go along with the singles record he already owns. Jeter would justify his salary with the media hoopla that will surround his achievements.

Jeter’s value for 2010 based on FanGraph’s dollar value was $9.8 million. He made $21 million. For the last four years, Jeter’s values based on FanGraph’s calculations were $14.3 million, $16.5 million, $32 million, and $9.8 million for an average of $18.5 million a year. Over that span, Jeter’s actual earnings averaged $20 million per year.

So let’s say that on the whole, Jeter’s salary was justified although heavily weighted by one tremendous season out of four. Where do the Yankees go from here?

If we take 2009 as the outlier and not the true barometer of Jeter’s expected performance next year, we’re left with the three seasons that surround it that average about $13.5 million. Maybe 2010 was especially bad and that can’t be expected again next year.  We could say Jeter can be expected to perform at a $14 million dollar level.

The problem is that no one knows. Not even Jeter.

The big question then becomes for how long? Jeter will be 37 years old this season. He is not a player that you expect to make any gains in his performance. You have to assume some level of decline. 2010 could have been a slight anomaly or it could have been the precursor to a sharp decline.

Yes, I have heard the argument that he is Derek Jeter, Mr. Yankee, who brings so much more to the team and to the clubhouse than just his performance on the field. That may be so. I can not attest to what effect Derek Jeter has in the clubhouse and what impact that has on the field. I will assume it is positive but that Derek Jeter being a nice guy and leader has little effect on whether Curtis Granderson can hit left-handed pitching or not.

More to the point, the Yankees can’t approach this negotiation as if they owe Derek Jeter something.  To date, the Yankees have paid Derek Jeter $205 million dollars. They made him the starting shortstop in 1996, his first of fifteen seasons. They have surrounded him with talent that enabled Jeter to be the poster child for a modern day Yankee dynasty.  It is to Jeter’s credit that he positioned himself to take advantage of these opportunities both by performing on the field and avoiding scandal off of it. He has gone on to be the face of Major League Baseball and probably the most marketable baseball player alive, a feat for which he has cashed in nicely. The Yankees have benefit from the relationship and so has Jeter, leaving very little owed between the two parties.

If anything, Derek Jeter needs the Yankees more than the Yankees need Derek Jeter. Jeter’s identity is that of a Yankee, a position that many players have held before: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly. Derek Jeter will leave someday regardless of this contract and, someday, the Yankees will have another home grown superstar who will become team captain and gain the title Yankee Great.

But what happens if Jeter leaves and becomes  a Los Angeles California Angel of Anaheim California? Yankee fans would rightfully be upset but how often does ownership take the blame for a player leaving? Usually, the players are blamed for chasing the dollar especially after they’ve spent a career not only making millions but proclaiming that [INSERT TOWN HERE] is the only place they have ever wanted to play. The Yankees would move on but Jeter would become a different personality, a player that might be greeted with love upon arrival in Anaheim but could soon become just another acquisition if his performance doesn’t produce. And Jeter’s marketability would certainly diminish.

So, why should the Yankees overpay for an aging shortstop who is in decline? Because he might get 3000 hits?

The bulk of this situation comes down to Jeter: what are his expectations and where does his ego reside. If Jeter performs in 2011 as he did in 2010, he would not be helping the Yankees or any other team by hitting in the lead-off spot. At some point, the conversation needs to be had that when the skills don’t warrant the job, the job is lost, even if you’re Derek Jeter. Likewise for shortstop. As I’ve written previously, there is little precedent for 37 year old shortstops in the history of baseball and even less precedent for successful shortstops. If Jeter is to continue in pinstripes, he should probably do so with the understanding that he won’t be playing shortstop for the length of his contract and likely will shift to another position. One theory that I’ve heard is the idea of moving ARod to permanent DH and placing Jeter at third. That move makes more sense then sticking Jeter in the outfield, although the Yankees will need to figure out what to do with Jorge Posada and emerging minor league phenom Jesus Montero before they can fully commit ARod and his billions to a non-fielding position.

The rhetoric from the Yankees has been that business is business. That may all be pomp and circumstance compared to how matters will be dealt with behind closed doors. However, the writing is on the wall. Derek Jeter’s time as an elite player is either close to finished or already passed. The only question that remains is how will Jeter deal with that fact. If I were the Yankees, I’d give Jeter no more than three years on a contract and keep it below $50 million.

Tags: Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Don Mattingly, Jesus Montero, Joe DiMaggio, Jorge Posada, Mark Teixeira, Mickey Mantle, Peter Abraham, Thurman Munson

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