Derek Jeter is currently in Tampa, rehabbing from a calf injury and trying to make it back to the Bronx for the stretch run of the 2013 season. In the aftermath of a fractured ankle set back and subsequent leg injuries, the 39-year-old shortstop has played in just five games this season.
In the late-60s, the New York Yankees franchise dealt with the decline and eventual retirement of then franchise icon Mickey Mantle. At the time of his retirement, Mantle held the record for most games played in pinstripes. That record now belongs to Jeter.
While Mantle's legacy stayed intact, his final days on the field were filled with injuries, positional changes and decline in production.
On behalf of baseball fans, especially those in New York, the following is an open plea to Derek Jeter to not become Mickey Mantle 2.0. If Jeter's body continues to fail him through the winter and early next spring training, the comparisons to Mantle won't end.
Mickey Mantle was a .305 career hitter through the end of the 1965 season, his 16th year in the major leagues. Derek Jeter was a .313 career hitter through the end of the 2012 season, his 17th full year in the major leagues.
Starting in 1966 and continuing through the 1967 season, Mantle hit .241 in 1,100 plate appearances, lowering his career average to .298. While the mark hardly diminished his legacy, especially in an era that now values on-base percentage more than batting average, the below .300 finish ate at Mantle.
Derek Jeter hit .316 in 2012. In five games, a very, very small sample size, Jeter got off to a .211 start. When, or, if, he returns for the end of the 2013 season, there will be major concerns over Derek Jeter's ability to hit like he has since 1996. If he can't produce offensively, the Yankees will soon face a dilemma surrounding his playing time due to Jeter's poor defense at shortstop.
In other words, Jeter can't hit like Mantle did in his last two seasons and still remain in the everyday lineup. His power and defense won't provide enough value unless he hits and reaches base at a high clip.
Production aside, the Yankees are entering a transition period of their franchise. While contending for one of the two wild card spots is still in play for New York, the team isn't the juggernaut of the late-90s or early 2000s. In fact, imagining a drought without postseason baseball in the Bronx isn't difficult.
Jeter, since arriving in the Bronx as a sensational, franchise changing rookie shortstop in 1996, has missed the postseason just once.
Similarly, Mickey Mantle played in the postseason in all but two Octobers from 1951 through 1964. In his final three years, the franchise finished sixth, tenth and ninth, respectively, in the American League standings. Without the luxury of wild cards, or even the LCS, New York and Mantle were well, well short of the postseason.
Jeter has $9.5 million reasons to return in 2014, and it's expected that he will, trying to put the bad taste of 2013 out of his mouth. If he can find his health and hitting form of the last two decades, the Yankees will gladly pay that salary for a soon-to-be 40-year-old shortstop. If he can't, however, the team and shortstop will deal with uncharted territory in 2014 and beyond.
Mantle went out a shell of himself. Jeter doesn't have to if he realizes he can't physically do the job any longer.
Last winter, Derek Jeter's day-by-day progress in Tampa was a major story in New York. He vowed to be back at shortstop for opening day against Boston. Of course, that never happened.
Unfortunately for Yankees fans, the prospect of Jeter's health moving forward hasn't become any less murky. If he doesn't recover soon and finish 2013 strong, the narratives out of spring training 2014 could be about Jeter's ability to ever play regularly again.
For a future Hall of Famer with 13 All-Star appearances, 72.3 career Wins Above Replacement and five World Series rings, holding on and fighting father time shouldn't be part of the long-term legacy.
Jeter has followed in Mickey Mantle's footsteps admirably as the face of the Yankees, on-field leader and legendary winner.
He doesn't have to when it comes to the end of a storied career.
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