As Mariano Rivera's farewell tour wound down last season, fans celebrated his career as he walked away from the sport still pitching at the top of the game. The same cannot be said for Derek Jeter this season as he tries to replicate that magic.
One electrifying night in Anaheim notwithstanding, Jeter has never played as badly as he has during the first five weeks of this season. Even during the 2011 season, when he was chasing his 3,000th hit and the pressure was clearly getting the best of him, fans knew that he was on the verge of breaking out. In fact, once he hit that milestone, Jeter went on a tear for the next year and a half that saw him play as well as he had at any point in his career until he suffered a terrible ankle injury during the first round of the playoffs.
Jeter's injury caused him to miss most of last season. It appears that even a year and a half later, he has still not completely recovered. He has looked old and slow on the base paths and in the field. He seems incapable of getting any strength out of his legs in the batter's box. Still fans still stream to the ballpark to witness the last days of this great player's career, no matter how much of a shell of his former self he has become.
You'd think that sports radio would be on fire with fans clamoring for the Yankees to give his at-bats and innings in the field to someone who can do more with them. However, the opposite has been true. One of the most common complaints from callers is that Jeter is not playing enough and that every game in which Yankees' manager Joe Girardi keeps Jeter out of the lineup -- either to rest him or take advantage of better matchups -- slights the fans who paid to see Jeter play.
Compete or celebrate?
Clearly, there is no interest on the part of the Yankees' powers that be to have Jeter play less, regardless of the fact that he is the least-productive position player on the team at the moment. He owns the second-lowest OPS, or on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, on the team, topping only new acquisition Brian McCann. The new catcher has been pressing in order to justify his sizable contract, but nobody doubts that he will eventually find his comfort zone and begin producing offensively at the same rate that he has for seasons.
The same cannot be said for Jeter. He's clearly far from being the same player physically that he was before his ankle injury. What is unclear is whether the Yankees will continue to allow him to limp along in order to continue to sell tickets … even if it could cost them a playoff spot.
Playing slightly better than .500 baseball through the team's first 40 games might be good enough to earn a wild-card slot at the moment. However, when you play in the American League East, the most competitive division in major league baseball, that level of performance is not going to cut it over the long haul.
If over the next four weeks Jeter continues to play this poorly, the Yankees will have a tough decision on their hands. Yangervis Solarte has an OPS that is 170 points higher than Jeter's. Even though he's not a natural shortstop, the Yankees might be better served competitively by starting either him or Kelly Johnson, whose OPS is 100 points higher than Jeter's, especially against right-handed pitching.
Will fans revolt if Jeter's playing time is reduced from five starts per week to two? Probably at first, but even vocal Jeter loyalists will recognize that he doesn't have what it takes to be a regular starter anymore. This will be especially true if the team is winning more without him, farewell tour or not.
When the Yankees come to terms with this, they might realize that Solarte isn't the only option. Stephen Drew is the former Diamondbacks and Red Sox shortstop who mistakenly refused a one-year, $14 million qualifying offer from the Red Sox in this past off-season. He remains unsigned because of the degree to which major league teams value the draft pick that they would lose (and the Red Sox would gain) if they signed him before the amateur draft in June.
Considering even first round draft picks are far from guaranteed big leaguers, this hyper-valuing of draft picks compared to a shortstop as good as Drew makes no sense. However, with more top players being signed to long-term extensions by their current teams and fewer available through free agency, teams are choosing to invest more in the future than the present.
The Yankees have never been one of these teams, nor should they become one. They can afford to give Jeter another month to turn his game around before considering Drew. However, once the amateur draft comes and goes, they could be forced to compete with every other team for his services, which would play right into the hands of his agent, baseball's Keyser Soze, aka Scott Boras.
The short(stop) market
It remains to be seen whether Boras is looking to get Drew a contract for just the remainder of this season, after which he will become an unrestricted free agent, or if he still wants a multi-year contract for his client. If the Yankees pursue Drew, expect the latter because they'll need a long-term solution at short.
It doesn't help matters that their free agent and trade options going into next season are limited. The two best free agent shortstops on next year's market are likely the Los Angeles Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez and the Orioles' J.J. Hardy, but both might be locked up through long-term extensions by their current teams before they reach free agency. The Blue Jays' Jose Reyes and the Colorado Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki could be trade targets, but both have significant injury histories.
The Yankees could sign Drew right now for the remainder of this season and three or four years beyond. However, the team's loyalty to Jeter and his desire to have the same kind of farewell tour that Mariano Rivera had last season is probably more of an obstacle than the pick they would lose if they signed him before the draft.
So it comes down to this. If Derek Jeter continues to perform at his current level for the next few weeks, he should sit down with Yankees' general manager Brian Cashman and let him know that if he can help the team by giving more playing time to other players, he should do whatever it takes to make the Yankees a better team, farewell tour or not.
What matters most?
Is the bottom line the bottom line or is winning the bottom line? The Yankees can't and won't know how their fans will react to sitting Jeter until they do it. The team has to trust that loyalty to Jeter aside, if the team wins enough to make it back into the playoffs Yankees fans will be there.
It's also possible that Jeter could become more helpful to the team and earn more playing time in a super-utility role than if he continues to muddle his way through. He recently went zero-for-seven in an extra-innings game against the Rays. In his final at bat, with the bases loaded and two outs in the 13th, he failed to drive in what would have been the game-winning run.
The Rays enjoyed an offensive outburst in the 14th and won by a large margin. If a similar situation presents itself later this season and Jeter enters as a pinch hitter instead of at his seventh at bat, we'd be more likely to see a player who resembles the Jeter of old.
This is an extremely tough decision for the Yankees front office. There's no doubt that he has been one of the team's most important players since his rookie season of 1996 and he deserves all the loyalty he gets, but he also owes the team and their fans just as much loyalty. If he can't turn around his performance, the captain needs to sit down and give the team its best chance to win.
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