Commentary

Derek Jeter comes out a winner again

This time, he beats his own team -- with a contract he'll be hard-pressed to live up to

Updated: December 6, 2010, 10:00 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Between now and 2014, Derek Jeter has a pretty good idea of what he'll be getting from the Yankees.

At least $56 million, perhaps as much as $65 million, and, if he plays well enough, the chance to negotiate one more "insulting" contract that would add undetermined millions to the quarter-billion dollars he will have already collected from the team in salary alone.

The Yankees, on the other hand, have no idea what they will be getting from Derek Jeter.

Jeter
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireDerek Jeter could still turn back the clock -- but even The Captain can't outrun Father Time.

Will he return to his form of 2009, when he momentarily wound back the clock to hit .334 and play shortstop with the range of the 25-year-old he once was, rather than the 35-year-old he had become?

Or would his 2010 season prove to be just the beginning of a continual decline, his .270 eroding to .260 next year, and maybe .250 the year after that, and his range, already reduced a little more than a step in either direction in 2010, restricted even further?

Now that the numbers are safely on paper and the signatures are just awaiting the doctor's OK to be applied, these are real concerns the Yankees face, and real issues even an athlete as stubborn and supremely confident as Jeter is eventually going to have to face.

So if you are into assessing winners and losers even in transactions as mundane as a contract negotiation, there was only one winner in this one.

Derek Jeter, who made out handsomely. In fact, four years from now, we may all be saying that he made out like a bandit.

Put aside all the silly posturing on both sides and disregard if you can the misguided attempts by many to portray the forcing of an aging ballplayer to accept a "pay cut" from $18.9 million a year to a mere $16 million as insulting or in any way demeaning. You listen to some fans and journalists in this town and you'd think the Yankees were asking Jeter to mop up the toilets in the visitors clubhouse for minimum wage by giving him only $15 million in their original offer.

Instead, look at precisely what the Yankees are paying for, and what they are likely to get.

On the plus side, they get a player with the highest profile in major league baseball, the most positive face any franchise could want to present as its front man, and a guy who has never embarrassed himself, his teammates or his team in any way.

On the negative side, they have a player who will turn 37 before next year's All-Star break playing one of the most athletically demanding positions on the field at a more advanced age than anyone else in the game doing it on a daily basis.

And they have a slap-hitter whose line drives now more often are ground balls, who showed a disturbing tendency to rap into double plays, whose power output is clearly diminished even by his own rather meager standards, whose strikeouts were up, whose walks were down and whose hallmark statistics -- his ability to hit well in clutch situations -- were decidedly mediocre.

Worst of all, if it turns out that after the 2011 season the Yankees determine that Jeter is no longer adequate as their everyday shortstop -- and believe me, there are high-ranking people in their baseball department who feel that time has already come, his latest Gold Glove notwithstanding -- then what do you do with him?

He doesn't have the bat to be a DH. Nor does he have the bat to displace a true corner outfielder, or the legs even to displace Brett Gardner. You wouldn't want to move Robinson Cano, the team's best all-around player, from second to short to accommodate an aging Jeter. Maybe you could move him to third and make Alex Rodriguez the full-time DH for the 2012 season.

Clearly, the options for the Yankees regarding Jeter are limited, and no matter what you do with him, a drop in the batting order is warranted, and soon. That conversation, between Jeter and Joe Girardi, might get as testy as the ones between Brian Cashman and Casey Close over the past month.

The best the Yankees can hope for is that Jeter's 2010 season was not the start of a decline, but the result of the pressure of the contract negotiations Jeter knew were to come.

But if that was the case, doesn't it go against everything we have come to regard as gospel with Derek Jeter? Isn't this the guy who shrugs off pressure like rainwater rolling off the bill of his cap? The guy who always wants the two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth, season-on-the-brink at-bat to be his? The ultimate gamer who always comes through when the money is on the table?

It is tough to fathom that, needing to have one of the biggest seasons of an already big career, Derek Jeter crumbled under the strain.

I, for one, don't buy it and I presume neither do the Yankees.

Jeter in 2010 was what ballplayers become at 36 years old, especially players who have never indulged in the kind of chemical assistance so many others resorted to over the past 15 years.

And over the next four years, he is not going to get any younger, or by any rational stretch of the imagination, a whole lot better.

In spite of all their public posturing , the Yankees wound up giving Jeter a terrific deal. In a best-case scenario, if Jeter turns back the clock again and returns to become a .300 hitter, a high-OBP guy and an above-average shortstop, he can collect $51 million -- $16 million per season plus a $3 million buyout provision -- plus potentially millions more in incentives, opt out of the fourth year of the deal and re-enter the free-agent market.

If he continues to slide down the tubes, even if he hits, say, .240 in 2013, he can stick around for 2014 and collect another $8 million.

It is a no-lose situation for Jeter, but a potential land mine for the Yankees, to go along with the albatross contracts they have already given A-Rod, A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, and the one they are about to give Cliff Lee.

For the next four years, Derek Jeter will be handsomely rewarded by the Yankees.

The $56 million question is, will Jeter be capable of returning the favor?

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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