Varitek's a proxy for Jeter

Fact: Jeter’s 10 year, $180 million contract expires after the 2010 season. Next year is 2009, believe it or not. Two years. That’s it. Then what? Anyone can see that he’s no longer a very good defender and some may think I am too kind when I call him “capable” right now. But that’s not going to improve as Jeter enters his late 30′s. Will Jeter move to 1B? What if Teix (or other more adept/powerful player) is entrenched there? Will he slide to 2B? Outfield? Willingly or will it be kicking and screaming?

What if Jeter (and agent Casey Close) pull what Varitek/Boras are trying to do to the Sox: Sell the intangibles and disregard the facts? What if Jeter, at age 37 (during 2011), decides that playing SS is more important than any other factor? How will the Yanks react?

In many ways, he is our Derek Jeter, though the Yankees’ calm-eyed, fist-pumping captain is obviously superior in talent and production. They both have extremely recognizable profiles as central figures in baseball’s marquee rivalry. They both are greatly respected by their peers. They both loathe A-Rod. And one more commonality: When it became clear that the tangible measures were now suggesting that the player had significant flaws, they both had a well-stocked army of vocal and oblivious supporters who began clinging to the flimsy concept of “intangibles” as a vague means of denying the erosion of their idol’s talent. The emperor has no clothes – and in Jeter’s case, the emperor can’t go to his left, either.

Here’s the thing: I think Jeter is self-aware enough that he won’t want to play if he can’t play at the levels he’s already set as his “norm”. I can’t see Jeter doing what other HOF’ers have done, hang on just to play another year. It sure won’t be for the money, that’s for sure.

And you can bet your bobblehead that punching holes in that particular argument carries a tremendous amount of satisfaction. For all of Varitek’s alleged intangibles – handling pitchers, hustling, grit, guts, toughness, chewing glass, spitting nails, squatting, scowling, etc. – recent events suggest he’s teetering on becoming one of the most vile subspecies of professional athletes: an aging, subpar performer who demands the salary and security of a prime-of-career star.

You can virtually swap Jeter’s name for Varitek’s in the passage above and recycle this in two years. But I am hopeful, optimistic, homer-iffic in thinking that Jeter/Close won’t be looking for a 6 year deal at age 37. But there is a part of me that fears they will and fears more that Hank & Hal will be too scared not to relent. If Jeter wants to retire a Yankee and only play for this team his entire career, he’s going to have to adapt to the changing needs of the team and the changing level of his performance.

Nearly all of the great SS’s, particularly the bigger ones, eventually moved from SS to yield to a younger, more athletic body. Ripken, Yount, Ernie Banks to name just three. Yount moved from SS at age 29, when he was still young enough to make the all star team as a CF. Ripken waited until age 36. Banks moved to 1B at age 31. Hell, ARod moved from SS to 3B, yielding to Jeter, in 2004 at age 28.

Despite his declining ability to get down on a ball to his left, I do believe Jeter is still a tremendously gifted athlete who could probably adapt to another position rather quickly. He has the natural instinct to play the game and it would not surprise me at all to see him make a Yount-like jump to the OF and do well out there. He can still run with those long legs. And his arm strength has never been an issue. Could he also move to 2B? Sure, I guess, but then where does Cano go?

I can see Jeter recognizing, after 2010, that it’s time for someone younger, more skilled to take over the SS position. I think he will not have to be forced to another position; I think he will sooner come to management with the suggestion than they will bring it to him. Frankly, I am guessing management is scared as hell to do anything that might rub the Cap’n the wrong way.

There’s no shame in admitting you can’t do things the way you used to. Happens to everyone, except maybe Nolan Ryan. I am reluctant to call it “noble” for Jeter to recognize this and initiate the move, but it would be the right thing to do by the end of his contract. For a guy who has spent his entire career trying to do the right thing the right way, this seems the path that Jeter should take after 2010.

Of course, unless Jeter is set on playing until he approaches 4,000 hits (he’s at 2,535 right now), he could very well decide to hang up the spikes in 2010, with enough money, accolades, accomplishments to last a lifetime. Would it be shocking for him to take the stance that some others have taken: When I can no longer play at the levels for which I am accustomed, it’s time for me to hang it up. Perhaps Jeter won’t want to hang around until they rip the jersey off his back. It’s more common in football, I think, with Tiki Barber and Barry Sanders most obviously and recently, to see guys simply pack it in before the precipitious decline that’s inevitable.

For Jeter to approach 4k hits, using an easy average of 200 hits per year (career average: 206), he’d need to play at least another seven years. That’s five years after his contract expires. And, uh oh, using that average hits/year, Jeter will be thisclose to the immortalizing 3,000 by the time 2010 concludes. Can you see Jeter/Close walking into Hank & Hal and saying: “Jeter needs 85 hits to reach 3,000. Want him to do it in some other uniform in some other city?” Talk about pressure.

At the end of all this, I’m a Jeter fan. My boys love Jeter. Overrated? Perhaps. But the other fact is that he is wearing 4 rings as an integral part of the 90′s Yankee dynasty. Immortal. And I am OK with the idea of Jeter finishing his career at some position other than SS; this won’t diminish anything he’s done. And if he takes the path that Varitek/Boras are taking, I’ll (sadly, reluctantly, wistfully) be OK with watching Jeter get his 3,000th in some other uniform.



Thanks to loyal reader tadthebad who passed this along

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