What will Jeter do for an encore? (cont.)
A player of Jeter's stature, though, can lay claim to about as much playing time as he wants, given his health and some minimal competence. And the Yankees, who always have a terrific offense and have played the likes of Tony Clark, Doug Mientkiewicz and Andy Phillips at first base, are uniquely able (and at times bafflingly willing) to punt a lineup spot.
Jeter isn't quite as assured as Rose was of being able to get at-bats once he's an irrelevant hitter, but he's about as close as you can get without being your own manager. The real issue is how many of them he might get at shortstop. Since integration, only 13 shortstops have qualified for the batting title at age 36 or older, and they've done it a total of 26 times, with none turning the trick more than four times. Given this history, it's a safe bet that Jeter will be moved off the six by 2012 at the latest.
This is an issue that people make too much of, however. In strict baseball terms it isn't going to kill the Yankees if Jeter hangs around in the middle infield after he has started to rot; statistically wretched defensive play at shortstop has never kept the team from winning its annual 95 games during the Jeter era. And as famously ugly as the ends of some shortstop tenures have been, Jeter, to be cynical about it, has a lot invested in his image as a gracious team player and isn't likely to make things unpleasant for the poor schmuck -- perhaps Jose Reyes, whose contract with the Mets is up after 2011? -- who has to replace him. (Yes, Alex Rodriguez, who got no such love from Jeter upon coming to New York six years ago, might beg to differ, but moving from shortstop at 40 is a lot different than moving at 30.)
This brings us to our third question, which to my mind may be the least interesting in baseball. Jeter is never going to play for any team other than the Yankees. When the time comes they'll sign him to a new contract for more money than his on-field contributions will be worth, and no one will think twice about it. I'd guess that Jeter will sign for an annual salary near the $22.5 million AAV that Manny Ramirez is making, and that he'll get an extra year or two atop the two that Ramirez got from the Dodgers. Considering that the Yankees spent around $40 million on Kyle Farnsworth, Jason Giambi and Carl Pavano last year, it's hard to see how the dollars matter much. They can afford it, and even if Jeter instantly turns into Skeeter Newsome upon signing a new deal it won't keep the Yankees from doing other things to improve the team. It's all a non-issue.
What is an issue, more than the hits record he isn't going to break or the controversies over his inevitable move off of shortstop and his contract that aren't going to materialize, is Jeter's legacy. For such a revered winner, Jeter has presided over a lot of failure as captain, from the worst collapse in playoff history to a nearly decade-long run during which absurd payrolls that routinely neared or exceeded $200 million bought not one world championship.
All of this is less his fault than anyone's, but there are probably college freshmen with no clear memories of the last time Jeter won a ring. It would be nice to think he doesn't have anything left to prove. But is it really true?
Tim Marchman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com.
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