By the time you read this, Derek Jeter may have signed his new contract with the Yankees. Or maybe his agent, Casey Close, is walking up to reporters, flexing Hans and Franz style, then walking away, confident he’s gotten his point across. Or maybe no one has budged at all. No matter the status of the negotiations—and by the end of last week, the Yankees and Jeter were making progress—this will end up the way everyone knew it would all along: Derek Jeter will be a Yankee next year, and the year after, and for the rest of his career.
Over the past month, the Jeter Chronicles have provided more entertainment fodder than we could have hoped for, which is why we like sports, after all. The whole situation happened to line up neatly with the Talmudic new-school/old-school debates of the game today: Emotion vs. Statistical Evidence, Loyalty vs. Efficiency, Historical Production vs. Future Results. Were the Yankees stabbing the True Yankee in the back? Were Jeter and Close deluded about the marketplace, his skills, and the gray hairs creeping into his receding hairline? Derek Jeter, not for the first time, was a blank slate on which we projected our own beliefs.
So allow me to project mine: The Yankees have already been way too nice to Jeter. Their first offer, the one that Jeter and Close appeared to be so confused by, the reported three-year, $45 million proposal, was insane for the exact opposite reasons that Jeter and Close thought it was insane: It’s way, way too much. You can make an argument that, honestly, the Yankees shouldn’t sign him at all. But given a dispassionate assessment of his market value, I’d offer him one year, $5 million … tops.
Jeter received the first batch of bad publicity he’s had in, oh, ten years when Jeter’s alleged initial contract demand was leaked to the press last month: six years, $25 million a year. This was a ludicrous number, which Jeter and Close must have known, but the subtext was what mattered: Jeter wanted to be paid what A-Rod is paid, for as long as A-Rod will be paid. The A-Rod-Jeter frenemies story line has gotten so tired that even the media has dropped it, but apparently it was still sticking in Jeter’s craw. It made him look petty and out of touch. The Yankees saw an opportunity in Jeter’s audacity and took advantage of it, beautifully. They didn’t have to do much spinning at all. Compared with Jeter’s outrageous request, their offer looked entirely reasonable. It almost looked kind.
(Side note: On the website the Faster Times, writer Lisa Swan recently posited a nightmarish scenario the Yankees avoided: What if A-Rod didn’t opt out of his contract three years ago? That would have made A-Rod and Jeter high-profile free agents at the same time. And you thought the Jeter Chronicles were melodramatic.)
It’s strange, though. No one seemed to ask the question of whether $15 million for three years for a 36-year-old declining shortstop is ludicrous in and of itself. No one needed to ask it because the answer is self-evident. Obviously, that’s too much for Jeter, but, you know, it’s Jeter. He’s earned it. Paying for past performance is how teams lose. This is the type of mistake the Yankees have spent the last year avoiding, to their long-term benefit.
Let there be no doubt: Derek Jeter as a baseball player isn’t worth close to $15 million a year for three years, never mind $25 million until he’s 42. Last year was the worst season of Jeter’s career by every statistical measure. He posted his worst batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, everything. Of the Yankees’ eight regular position players last season, Jeter was last in OPS, by a wide margin. Of all major-league players with enough plate appearances to qualify, Jeter was 115th in OPS. And this isn’t taking into account his fielding, which may have won him a Gold Glove last year but declined again, further proving the irrelevance of a once-proud award. For years, Jeter defenders have used the “just watch him play every day!” defense for those who criticized Jeter’s numbers. Now that argument can be used against him: Just watching Jeter at short, it’s obvious that his always-limited range is almost completely gone. The Yankees won’t be able to play him there in two years; they probably shouldn’t play him there next year. If Jeter’s name were Alfredo Gonzalez or Hubert Selby, Jeter and Close would be out hunting for no more than a single-year, seven-digit deal.
We got a glimpse of Jeter’s inevitable regression, and the way Yankees fans will react to him as he continues to decline, over the final months of the season and in the playoffs. With the rest of the offense clicking, there was a palpable tension every time Jeter came to the plate, a sense that something had changed. (In August, it seemed like he was hitting into double plays even when there was no one on base.) He was, to be frank, the weak link of an offense that was trying to win a World Series. He wasn’t booed, of course, but the murmurings were there: This isn’t the Jeter we once knew.