The last time Derek Jeter was seen around Yankees spring training, he was being conspicuously quiet while hundreds of media people surrounded Alex Rodriguez in the wake of his admission of steroid abuse. Jeter sat in the audience with Jorge Posada, Johnny Damon, and other Yankees as A-Rod “answered” questions and thanked his teammates for their support while choking back “tears.” Jeter made one more public comment — “One thing that is irritating and it really upsets me a lot is when you hear everybody say, 'It was the steroid era. Everybody was doing it.' You know, that's not true. Everybody was not doing it" — and then headed off to join the United States World Baseball Classic team. They lost, Jeter struggled, and now he’s back in a clubhouse that, without him and Rodriguez, has been awfully quiet.
Jeter played in the Yankees’ 7–1 exhibition over the Red Sox last night, had a hit and a walk in three at-bats, and gave the requisite “I’m happy to be back with my team, I need to play” comment.
It’s a critical year for Jeter. He turns 35 in July, is coming off his worst offensive season in a decade and, no matter how much True Men of Baseball try to convince you otherwise, is considered one of the worst defensive shortstops in the game by almost every statistical metric. He has two years left on his contract, one that’s made him the second-highest paid player in the game, though you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who considers Jeter the second-best player in baseball. When that contract’s up, will he demand the same amount? Will he insist on still playing shortstop? How much longer can he remain the Yankee hero? Age takes its toll on all of us.
It helps that he’ll have A-Rod to play off of, who makes Jeter look better every time he does something tone-deaf. But Jeter, when A-Rod returns, will probably be the second-worst hitter in the lineup (behind probably center fielder Brett Gardner), and that’s something time isn’t going to improve. Right now, it feels good to have Jeter back; it didn’t quite feel like an actual Yankees team without him. But “feeling like a Yankees team” and “having a winning Yankees team” are two different things, and in a couple of years, at 37, will Jeter actually be helping his team by limping around shortstop, hitting eight homers and stealing seven bases?
The rest of spring, this won’t matter. But it will matter sooner than you think.