That’s just going to get worse. Fans love Jeter, and they’ll always love Jeter. But they love wins more. And if playing Jeter every day at shortstop as he surpasses a reasonable age for a human being to play that position costs the Yankees wins—and it will—a reckoning is inevitable. Look at what happened with David Ortiz in Boston over the past two years. His sad, months-long slumps became the definitive narrative of an underperforming team. Even when he turned it around and started hitting a bit more, the “What happened to Papi?” questions left a mark. That’s the way it is when the face of your franchise is on his last lap. Yankees fans won’t ever fully turn on Jeter, of course, but what fills seats is not watching a past-his-prime hero trudge around the infield: It’s championships. And playing Derek Jeter at shortstop in 2012 and 2013 makes the Yankees winning a championship less likely.
Brian Cashman and the Yankees know this but can’t say it, which is why it’s so strange that they’ve received any criticism for not “taking care of” Jeter. Part of them has to want to say, “Listen, man, you’re lucky we’re offering you this much.” They can’t be so disrespectful to Jeter, but I can: $15 million a year is nuts.
Obviously, Jeter is not worthless, on the field or off. He’s not one of the worst players in baseball, not yet, and the Yankees don’t have any obvious replacement brewing in the farm system. And the Yankees brand certainly doesn’t hurt having the Mythical True Yankee still hanging around; you’re going to see JETER 2 jerseys at Yankee Stadium for the next 50 years. The only real milestone he has left is the 3,000-hits plateau, which he’ll surely hit by midseason of next year. After that, there’s nothing within his reach. That’s sort of the point. The Yankees have already paid for that, and their investment has reaped millions in benefits. There is a point when you are throwing bad money after good.
And contrary to public perception, the Yankees do have a spending limit, particularly when baseball’s luxury tax is accounted for. Because the Yankees have without fail exceeded the luxry-tax limit—$178 million for 2011—every dollar they spend above that number is essentially $1.40. (Jeter gets a dollar; the Yankees pay $1.40.) The Yankees have already paid $174.1 million into the luxury-tax kitty, and that’s before this year.
Paying $15 million for past-their-prime shortstops simply because they “owe it to them” is exactly the type of mistake that the Yankees have been diligent about avoiding. The Yankees’ farm system, which seems to produce cheap, sustainable, cost-controlled talent in perpetuity (save for the shortstop position, if just because with Jeter around, it was never much of a priority), has only improved in recent years, and Cashman, armed with a championship two years ago and a new stadium that is its own cash cow, at last has the public-relations capital to turn the Yankees into the Mega Moneyball franchise he’s always wanted it to be. Yankees teams of the past have failed in part because they were a monolith, an ocean liner being lapped by more lithe motorboats, a stationary army unable to battle the guerrilla fighters coming from all directions. Cashman has succeeded in turning the Yankees into a leaner, more efficient franchise, both on and off the field. Derek Jeter is a relic of a time when the Yankees were paying for names, were paying for what players had once done rather than what they will. Paying him that much above his market value—and considering Jeter has no other suitors, it’s up for debate what that value even is—is precisely what the Yankees have tried to stop doing, for their own well-being. The Yankees are a better team, more likely to win multiple championships, because they’re holding the line on crazy salaries to older players. This is how you win.
Jeter will get his money, not as much as he wants but more than he’s worth and enough so both sides will be able to save face and say they “won.” It won’t be crippling to the franchise, not yet. But in 2012, 2013, and, heaven forbid, beyond, it will be. Everybody likes Derek Jeter now, and why wouldn’t they? He’s a Yankees legend. But so is Yogi Berra, and he doesn’t belong behind the plate anymore.