Commentary

Derek Jeter, Yankees will get it done

Why? Because the shortstop has no other options, and neither do Cashman and Co.

Updated: December 3, 2010, 9:21 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

For the past couple of weeks, the ongoing Derek Jeter versus the Yankees soap opera has been great entertainment for the entire family.

From Hal Steinbrenner predicting -- or was it promising? -- that things "could get messy,'' to Casey Close admitting to being 'baffled,'' to Brian Cashman encouraging Jeter to go out there and see if he could do better on the open market, it has been a daily feast of gossip, snark and innuendo that all of us are going to miss once it is gone.

But now that all is relatively quiet on the Jeter front -- the latest report is that the Yankees are willing to improve on their initial offer of three years for $45 million -- the time may have come for all of us to try a long, healthy slug of Reality Potion, straight up.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
William Perlman/US PresswireDerek Jeter will be back in pinstripes next season, barring a wild turn of events.

And the reality is that both sides in this argument need each other more than either of them would ever admit, and that no matter how much more posturing, saber-rattling, spin-doctoring and face-saving is yet to come, Jeter and the Yankees are going to remain together for two very basic reasons.

Jeter, as has been well-documented, has nowhere else to go -- at least not at the terms he is asking.

And -- although this part has been largely ignored -- neither do the Yankees.

Because if Derek Jeter doesn't play shortstop for them in 2011, who will?

Eduardo Nunez.

As ESPN.com's Buster Olney reported last week, the Yankees are considering Nunez as Plan B if Plan A, the re-signing of Jeter, falls apart.

Case closed. Game, set and match. Get the pens, Casey and Cash, and start signing paper.

As the Wall Street boys like to say, I got no skin in this game. Frankly, I don't care who wins this battle. I can understand both sides of the argument, and as Billy Martin used to say in the beer commercial, I feel very strongly both ways.

It makes perfect sense for the Yankees not to want to commit four years or more to a shortstop of declining range who will turn 37 before the next All-Star break.

And it is perfectly justified for Jeter to be miffed at the knowledge that the Yankees want to pay him less than they are paying A.J. Burnett, and want him off the premises four years before Alex Rodriguez's contract runs out.

But the reality for Jeter is, no other team is likely to match, let alone exceed, the three-year, $45 million offer the Yankees laid on his desk three weeks ago.

And the reality for the Yankees is, they can neither want nor afford to trust their starting shortstop job to a kid with all of 50 major league at-bats on his résumé.

When all the heavy breathing dies down, the Yankees and Jeter will be together, and those will be the only two reasons.

Interestingly enough, Nunez's first taste of big-league ball was remarkably similar to Jeter's in 1995. At 23, Nunez appeared in 30 games, came to the plate 53 times, had 50 official ABs, and batted .280 with one home run and seven RBIs. His on-base percentage was .321.

In 1995, Jeter was 21, appeared in 15 games, came to the plate 51 times, had 48 offical ABs, and batted .250 with no homers, seven RBIs and an OBP of .294.

He gave little or no indication of what he would become -- and so far, neither has Nunez.

But the difference is, Jeter was a No. 1 draft pick with a world of potential who was expected to develop into an excellent ballplayer. There's not a single scout out there who is predicting Eduardo Nunez as The Next Great Yankee.

In fairness, he might develop into a very good, or maybe even great, player.

But now is not the time for the Yankees to take that gamble -- and in fairness to Nunez, now is not the time for him, either. It was a lot easier in 1996 for Jeter to replace Tony Fernandez than it will be for anyone to replace Derek Jeter, especially if the end of his Yankees career is acrimonious and, in the minds of many fans, a couple of years too soon.

If that is what the Yankees think they are going to do next year if Jeter spurns their offer, then they have inadvertently given Jeter and Close the only shred of leverage they have in this fight.

What's going on between Jeter and the Yankees might seem like a surprise to some, but not only is it deeply rooted in the history of this franchise -- I have already written about how previous Yankees front offices treated Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra at contract time -- it is also the result of two key mistakes, one by each side, made over the past decade.

The first was made by Jeter and Close when they signed that 10-year, $189 million contract following the 2000 season -- rather than taking, say, five years and gambling that Jeter's would performance would result in a windfall deal after 2005.

The second was made by the Yankees, who could have saved themselves all this grief and bad PR by extending Jeter a few years at the same time they were foolishly handing A-Rod a 10-year contract, plus raise, following his opt-out after the 2007 season.

As a result, Jeter became one of the few ballplayers who signed his biggest deal while he still had peak performance years ahead of him -- rather than what is usually the case, the big free-agent contract that is given to a player who has already seen his best days. Now, at a point when a lot of players are ready to cash in, Jeter is being told, "Sorry, you already got yours.''

And the Yankees are now in the untenable position of having to give at least three more years to a player they consider well past his peak, at a salary they consider to be too high for his production, even if it is technically a pay cut.

Both sides are understandably bound to emerge from this thing disgruntled, and in the case of Jeter at least, even a little scarred.

But whether fans want to hear it or not, this is a business deal for both sides, one from which all emotion and the irrationality that comes with it must be stripped away.

And when you peel away all of the BS, what is left is this: Next year, the Yankees' shortstop will either be Derek Jeter, or Eduardo Nunez.

If that isn't enough to motivate both sides to get this thing done as quickly as possible, then I don't know what is.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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