SI.com's Jon Heyman, an excellent sportswriter who's known for his agent sources and a frustrating resistance to advanced statistics, reported yesterday that Derek Jeter may be looking for a six-year contract, and it has the whole Yankees blog and fan world in a tizzy. Heyman's missive was the first public acknowledgment of what has been a quiet but worrisome debate among Yankees fans for a while: Just how is this Jeter contract stuff going to go down? The report showed that, if Jeter's serious about those six years, this might get uglier than anyone feared.
Why six years? Because that would take Jeter to 42, the same age Alex Rodriguez will be at the end of his contract, which means we're back into that dumb battle again. Assuming Jeter isn't willing to play the next six years at $1 million per — or even $5 million per — that's a crazy contract to a guy who is already struggling to keep up at shortstop and is coming off the worst year of his career.
Baseball Prospectus's Steven Goldman has a terrific piece showing just how ridiculous a six-year contract for Jeter would be. Here's the money paragraph:
Everything he does is about batting average. Have players 37 and older hit over .300 over the rest of their careers? Sure; there have been nine of them since World War II (minimum of 1200 plate appearances), most recently Moises Alou (.312), Barry Bonds (.325), Tony Gwynn (.343) and Paul Molitor (.309). Note that you have three outfielders and one designated hitter; the defensive demands of shortstop haven't allowed very many shortstops to get even 1200 plate appearances after their 36th year. Just seven have been allowed to play that much in the postwar era. Of those, Luke Appling hit .300. None of the remaining half-dozen hit over .276. As we saw this year, Jeter can't be productive at .276. Alex Rodriguez had a down year, but still hit 30 home runs; you can argue that he's in decline, but not that he's done. You can make a far more convincing argument that Jeter is done, particularly when defense enters into the position.
And Goldman isn't talking about 2016 there: He's talking about next year. (This is why even if Jeter's agent is just talking big about those six years as a negotiating tactic — which he surely is — it still matters.) By 2016, Jeter will be a wasted roster spot. Heyman says the Yankees are more interested in a three-year deal, which is already too many, but, you know, it's Jeter. Three years is salvageable.
That's what all this comes down to, though: It's Jeter. Jeter had a rough season, but he's still Derek Jeter. He's still going to reach 3,000 hits next season, he still has five World Series rings, he still has Bob Sheppard announcing his name before every at-bat. He's still the most popular Yankee of the last 40 years, and he's still worth millions upon millions to the Yankees even if he never takes another at-bat. (Perhaps especially if he never takes another at-bat.) It's Jeter.
But that's the problem: Eventually, if he insists on playing for the next six years, he won't be Jeter anymore. After a while, the inevitable decline of an athlete does take a toll on one's Q rating. Look at Emmitt Smith, or Roger Clemens (who of course had his own side problems). Or, more current: Look at Brett Favre. Favre, like Jeter, spent his entire career being adored by the vast majority of sports fans and the commentariat, with a vocal minority pointing out the flaws in his game and the unabashed hero worship he obviously fed off. That minority grew larger and larger, and now, it has taken over: It is very possible that Favre might be booed by his home fans if he throws an interception this weekend. Favre is a shell of the player he was once, to the point that some people are questioning whether he was really ever that great at all. The man who was once forgiven everything is now forgiven nothing. If he were the best quarterback in football still, sure, there'd still be criticism, but he'd have his play to remind everyone of why they started watching and caring about him in the first place. Now: He's just a sad old man who surely regrets ever coming back in the first place.
Obviously, the Jeter-Favre parallel doesn't hold entirely: Jeter has generally stayed off Deadspin, for one thing. (Unless it's Fire Joe Morgan Week.) And he certainly will never be seen as the mercenary that Favre is, either. But Derek Jeter is the Derek Jeter Brand not just because he is a Yankee, not just because he knows how to carry himself in the public sphere ... but also because for most of the last fifteen years, he's been an outstanding baseball player. All statistical evidence — all visual evidence, really — points toward Jeter no longer being an outstanding baseball player. And at 42, all evidence points to him being a useless one.
We're not saying Jeter will ruin his legacy by insisting on playing: People still like Willie Mays, after all. But this is a man who has handled his career in a way that every professional athlete envies, a man who, by the way he has carried himself, has come to represent something larger than who he is as a player. On one level, many fans don't care that A-Rod's a better player than Jeter; they just like Jeter more. But can that remain if he's hitting .224 and lumbering in the field? He has to lose something, doesn't he? Does he remain Derek Jeter then?
Jeter and his agent look ready to play hardball. This might get ugly. We hope Jeter knows what he's doing. We would assume he does ... but we used to think that about Favre, too.