The other argument against Jeter receiving that much money is his “declining performance”. Well, that’s true. He did play worse in 2010 than 2009, but I don’t think anyone expected him to repeat his 7.1 fWAR season. Almost anything is a “declining performance” from that. But Jeter recorded only 2.5 fWAR this past season, and it was his lowest ever, including his rookie season. However, if you look a little deeper, there are reasons to believe Jeter will be better next season with the most obvious being his .307 BABiP, which is almost 50 points below his career norm. In other words, he was highly unfortunate in a season that he couldn’t really afford to have one. 2007 was pretty close to an “average” season for Jeter, and he racked up 3.5 fWAR that season. That also included a nasty -17.9 UZR rating that he hasn’t neared in the past three seasons, and you could make the argument that even a -8 rating would leave him with 4.5 fWAR, which sounds more accurate. At $4.5 million a win, that’s $20.25 million of production, which makes a $23 million asking price less ridiculous. Sure, you can make the argument (which may even be a better one) that he hasn’t done that in 3 of the past 4 seasons and aging may restrict his ability or the degree to which he rebounds, but the same sabermetric principles that scream for Jeter to be tarred and feathered also support a mighty bounce-back.
The number of years also becomes a point of contention because of Jeter’s age. He will be 37 for most of next season, and a six-year contract will make him 42 during that last season, which is ancient in player years. But it’s not unheard of, and if you want to look for exceptions, Hall of Famers who keep themselves in shape are a good place to start. Additionally, Jeter may accept 4 years, which would make him 40 in that last season, and that’s not as much of a stretch (though not one anyone wants to bet on). He’s been extremely durable his entire career with only one season significantly below 150 games played. He may be genetically gifted in this area, and he probably is a better bet than most to last to that age (of course, that still doesn’t make it a good idea, but Jeter can make that argument).
Then there’s the “franchise bonus” for Jeter being Jeter. The argument has been made that it would hurt the Yankee brand by letting Jeter walk, and while it won’t irreparably harm the Yankee brand, it will tarnish it a smidge, though the actual degree is uncertain. It will create some ill will, and the Yankees will sell fewer jerseys as people won’t buy so many Jeter ones and only a big trade would bring someone who would create excitement at that position. I’ll agree that the impact on the Yankee brand won’t be gigantic, but it is non-negligible for the short-term. (My problem here is not that Jeter or anyone else wants to give Jeter more money to Jeter for him being him. Players aren’t equal, and teams value certain players for things like longevity and loyalty. I don’t have a problem with that. My problem is the ambiguity of it. How much does the “franchise bonus” cost? $3 million? $10 million? Intangibles can’t be quantified, but salaries can. And I want to know how much I’m paying for Jeter’s performance and for his “Jeterness”.)
There’s also a somewhat societal issue in these negotiations. When you or I go out for jobs, we’ll get an opening salary, and year-after-year, we expect to receive a pay raise. Call it seniority or inflation, but we get one anyway. Now, this happens in most jobs, and as long as you continue to do your job and there are no recessions that affect your job, you expect to continue to make more money than you did the previous year. Essentially, Jeter is asking for this. All players want this. Sure, a lot of them eventually come to terms with it, and they accept less money. But it’s usually after no one wants them or they have a marked decline in performance that coincides with a younger player outperforming them. It’s easier to accept then. But this isn’t Jeter’s scenario. The most famous baseball organization in the world wants him. He just won a Gold Glove as the best defensive shortstop (let’s leave the actual merits of that for another discussion). And he was the 11th best shortstop (by FanGraphs measure) in the majors, and we all expect somewhat of a bounce-back (4.5 fWAR would put him 3rd and 4 would put him 5th). None of that exactly screams, “You suck and are declining to the point that you need a major pay cut”.
And of course, we have the deadly sin of pride. We love athletes for their competitiveness and for their desire to be the best, but at some arbitrary point, we draw a line where their competitiveness turns into “greed”, “showboating”, or “hot-headedness”. We all have different thresholds for that, but our encouragement of such things is what drives athletes. Jeter likes to compete, likes to win, likes to perform for the fans, and likes to be well-paid for his efforts, and this negotiation is no different. He wants to win and make a lot of money. And he doesn’t want to admit he’s getting older. He’s only 36 for goodness sakes, and he’s got at least 40 more years of life ahead of him. Luckily, this is also about the time when “mid-life crises” hit and people have to come to terms with their age. Everything is no longer in front of you (I am not saying Jeter is having one of these. Personally, I don’t think people really have mind-scaring mid-life crises, but I do think this is about the time when you start thinking about these things, which aren’t the easiest things to grapple with). So, you have a highly-competitive athlete who is reaching middle-age, and there are still plenty of people out there who actually think he should be paid tens of millions. Sounds like a good combination.
I realize that the immediate reaction to Jeter’s demand is nothing short of incredulity. Some people could be willing to argue for 4/80, but 6/150 or 6/125 seems entirely ridiculous. And as an ending point, I’d agree. But that’s not what this is. It’s an opening salvo, and we still have 2 ½ months left to work it out. They’ll come down in asking price, and when it’s all done, we’ll marvel at Close and Jeter for asking for the world and getting the Yankees to offer 4/68 when they really didn’t have to. Or we’ll marvel at how humble Jeter became when he accepted the 3/48 deal—“He finally came to his senses, and not many athletes do that, right?” In a way, Jeter can’t lose. Whichever way this ends, it can be spun to make Jeter look like a Warren Buffett or a St. Paul, but before that rigmarole, Jeter has business to attend to. And he’s going to get his, and I have no problem with that. It is the American Way, after all.