November 28, 2010

When a Legend Loses His Luster

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What began as the gorilla in the room has quickly turned into back-page headlines and a conversation topic for radio hosts. An offer that at first seemed expected has been rebuffed, scoffed at, and analyzed to every last punctuation mark. A legend who once seemed untouchable, invincible and infallible is — gasp — becoming the “bad guy.”

The tensions of the Derek Jeter contract situation have seemed inevitable for at least a year now. Having just completed the final season of the 10-year, $189 million deal he made his shortstop in 2001, Yankees GM Brian Cashman knew there was no way this offseason and this decision were going to be easy.

The question is not “how do you pay a legend”; it is more accurately “how do you a pay a former legend with little left in the tank?”

The Yankees have already set the precedent in 2010 for overvaluing the captain’s production; Jeter had no business batting leadoff for a team hoping to win a championship. A brief look at No. 2’s statistics from this previous season:

Jeter’s batting average (.270) was his lowest for a full-season, ever, and below the likes of Oakland’s Daric Barton and the Angels’ Howie Kendrick. His on-base percentage (.340) was his lowest for a full-season, ever, and below the likes of Boston’s J.D. Drew and the White Sox’s Carlos Quentin. He has never hit fewer homeruns (10), and has only once grounded into more double plays (22). He was 22nd in the AL in stolen bases (18), 32nd in doubles (30) and 50th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.710).

Despite average statistics for a MLB shortstop, not to mention a 37th birthday only six months away, Jeter’s agent Casey Close has requested a four- or five-year deal that pays his client somewhere in the neighborhood of $22 million a year. Such a contract would make Jeter — who doesn’t hit for power or average and has below-average speed and defense — as well paid as the likes of Mark Teixeira, Johan Santana and Miguel Cabrera.

Simply put: Jeter has less leverage than a 6-5 defensive end trying to tackle Maurice Jones-Drew.

First, despite whatever might be said during negotiations, there is absolutely no way any other club is going to present an offer even in the stratosphere of four years/$20 million per year for Jeter’s services, not to mention the three years/$15 million per year offer already on the table. Of the teams in need of shortstops, including the Orioles, Padres, Giants and Mariners, none would seem willing or in the kind of financial position to shell out that kind of dough. The only chance that the Yankees face competition to sign Jeter is if a team like the Red Sox floats an offer for the sole purpose of trying to drive up the price-to-be-paid by their AL East rivals.

Secondly, if Jeter were to leave the Yankees, their chances of playing for a pennant and World Series title would not be drastically hurt, if hurt at all. An ideal lineup of the current Yankees roster — considering pure statistics only — would probably feature No. 2 in the No. 8 spot. The Yankees have enough offensive firepower without Jeter, and he brings no specific skill set (base stealing, homerun power, etc.) that is in short supply.

Finally, if Jeter attempts to raise his asking price based on “intangibles,” or his deep connection to the organization and fan base, such a plan will surely backfire. If and when Jeter does finally leave the Bronx, regardless of the terms, his contribution to the Yankee tradition and his place in Monument Park will never be in question. In terms of both statistics and memories-made, Jeter is undoubtedly one of the greatest Yankees to ever wear the pinstripes. Yet, despite the media’s undeniable love of dramatic story lines, perspectives on who are the “good guys” and “bad guys” will always be eclipsed by the only thing that truly matters in New York: winning. Yankee fans want wins more than pleasant relationships with their superstars; they want championships more than they want the mutual affection of Derek Jeter.

Three years, $15 million is more than enough for what Jeter brings to the Yankees’ “bottom line”: capturing the next World Series. If he and his agents believe otherwise, he’s welcome to become someone else’s aging superstar.

Original Author: Holden Steinhauer