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yankees countdown

Yankees Countdown: No. 3, Derek Jeter

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Yankees players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 3, shortstop Derek Jeter.

In the museum at Yankee Stadium, the various eras in franchise history are labeled with the names of players who defined those years: the Babe Ruth Era, the Joe DiMaggio Era, the Mickey Mantle Era, and so on. The display holding the most recent championship trophies? That's labeled as the Derek Jeter Era. The Yankees aren't being very subtle here: Jeter's already a living legend as far as they're concerned.

But living legends don't come cheap, and Jeter's contract expires after this season. The Yankees are in a tough spot: Should Jeter, in his late 30s, really earn as much as Mark Teixeira, in his early 30s? How does the record contract they gave to A-Rod — who's an all-time great, but not the face of the franchise — factor in? How much will the final figure be based on the fact that he's the Great Derek Jeter, Captain of the Yankees? And how much does his performance this season factor into that?

If we were writing a preview of Derek Jeter last spring, it might not have been terribly optimistic. Shortstop, after all, is a young man's position, and he looked very human at times in 2008. (He was hitting under .290 through mid-August, and under .300 until mid-September, which by Jeter's standards isn't very good.) Were we seeing the beginnings of the inevitable decline? No. No, we were not. Batting leadoff, he hit .334 last season with a .406 on-base percentage (his highest numbers in these categories since 2006), smacked eighteen home runs (his most since 2005), and finished third in the MVP voting. Even his much-maligned defense was pretty good: His UZR ranked fifth out of ten qualifying A.L. shortstops. Jeter's going to get paid next winter, almost no matter what happens this season. But another few years like 2009 will make the Yankees a lot happier to sign the checks.

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Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images