There were many times during the end celebrations of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte where I kept wondering what was going through the mind of Derek Jeter. The last remaining Core Four player of the now dead Yankees' dynasty that began in 1995, he had just watched Pettitte and Rivera go out of the game pretty much on their own terms and in good form. Trying to get into the head of another person, especially a ballplayer, is dangerous business, but I kept wondering if Jeter wondered if he could go out on his own terms too. Jeter will most certainly exercise his player option for 2014 and no doubt, that will be fine with the Yankees. Brian Cashman has already stated as much. The doubts occur if Jeter has anything left to offer. After four aborted attempts to return in 2013, Jeter only managed 17 games and wheels that could never get healthy.
As such, questions are obvious as to if Jeter can play at least semi-regularly again and how the Yankees would use him if he can. With the way the Yankees do tradition and these golden moments, can Jeter even show up to bow out gracefully?
Jorge Posada had a somewhat undignified last season in 2011. He was not allowed to catch. He was unhappy. But at least he had his post season hurrah against the Tigers. Mariano Rivera saved over 40 games after losing most of 2012 and had his magical tour around baseball including a special All Star moment. Andy Pettitte had a decent season and pitched a complete game gem in his last start against the only other team he pitched for besides the Yankees. They were fitting and lasting images.
What image can the mind conjure for Jeter? This ankle thing does not seem to want to go away. After a career full of hustling down the line, Jeter was forced to jog. A double play turn ended his season when he again landed wrong on the damaged joint. There is doubt. It is a different doubt than the one faced by Rivera coming back to start the 2013 season on a rebuilt knee.
Rivera, as great as he was, was a pitcher. Yes, covering bunts and running to cover first are issues, but it is not the same as having to run five times in five at bats, jumping over runners barreling into second or going to get balls hit into the hole or up the middle. A pitcher's legs are his foundation. Sure. An infielder's legs are his life.
We did not see Rivera as he tried to recover. We heard about his rehab and had some doubt about how he would recover. But we saw firsthand as Jeter tried to come back over and over again. The former made us wonder. The latter made us cringe.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Jeter can build the strength in his legs over the off season. Let's say that he comes back to Spring Training as healthy as a 40 year old guy can be. Then what? Are the Yankees going to throw him out there at short with his already questionable range diminished even further? Would they want a DH that has little power? Would Jeter want to spend a year at DH or left field?
If he comes back with some modicum of health, then 2014 can be as awkward for Jeter as 2011 was for Posada. Fortunately, Joe Girardi has already signed his contract, so Jeter will have a somewhat sympathetic supporter. If the Yankees can contend (something I cannot picture at the moment), Girardi will have to make really hard decisions.
But those decisions will only occur if Jeter can at least stay on the field.
Derek Jeter has never been a realist. That indomitable stubbornness led to the amazing surprise of his offense in 2012. I don't think a realist has that kind of season. It was a season that defied all odds. No other shortstop had ever been that effective at that age before. Despite nagging doubts he must have considering what happened to him in 2013, Jeter will believe he can still play in 2014. His confidence has always been his biggest asset. But that will not be enough this time. His body will need to cooperate.
Derek Jeter has beaten the odds before. He was finished after the 2011 season only to roar back with 2012. The odds this time lead to three possible scenarios. One, he cannot get healthy again and will be forced to quit. Two, he can get healthy but has nothing left to offer and becomes a league replacement, part-time roll player allowed to make his own farewell tour. And three, he somehow manages to play 130 games with 2011 type numbers. I cannot picture any other things happening than one of those three. And the third would be the best possible outcome.
Jeter's 2012 has to give pause to what or what cannot happen in Derek Jeter's charmed career. Perhaps he can go out on his own terms with some sort of success. But the sinking feeling here is that his end game will not come close to matching the magical moments his three buddies were able to put together.