It's only fitting that the New York Yankees are one of the final two teams, along with Tuesday night's opponents, the Houston Astros, to experience their first game of the 2014 season. That gives future Hall of Famer and Yankees legend Derek Jeter, who announced in February that he's retiring at season's end, a little extra time to take in his last Opening Day and the start of his final year in baseball.
Then again, after all he went through in 2013, Jeter might have prefer that 2014 start as soon as possible.
In the wake of suffering a fractured left ankle in October 2012 during the Yankees' ALCS loss to the Detroit Tigers, Jeter played just 17 games and managed all of 73 plate appearances in a 2013 filled with fits, starts and frustrating setbacks in the recovery process. In so many ways, Jeter spent much of last year limping, serving as the embodiment of an injury-riddled Yankees club that missed the postseason for only the second time in his 19 seasons.
But will that be the case again in Jeter's 20th and final campaign?
After almost an entire year off, Jeter has fully recovered. Of course, for both him and the Yankees to be successful, Jeter will need to show he can still swing the bat, if not to the extent he did when he led the majors with 216 hits, then at least enough so that he can make solid contact and get on base while hitting near the top of the Yankees' revamped and rebuilt lineup.
Jeter showed he still has at least a little something left in his lumber this spring:
He's also going to need to remain a competent defender at arguably the most important position, which in Jeter's case means making the plays he gets to so the Yankees can once again rely on his steady, if limited, glove work. That's far from a given, considering he's coming off serious ankle surgery and various injuries to his legs that cropped up when he tried to return last year.
Again, though, here's another example from the exhibition season that shows Jeter moving well:
Admittedly, if you're looking for answers to how Jeter will fare based on his final spring training, well, his performance this March wasn't great: He managed just seven hits in 51 at-bats, and only one of those went for extra bases (see video above).
Jeter's spring training results were mixed. He never looked good at the plate, hitting .137 with a .214 OBP in 18 games. But numerous scouts said he moved well—relatively speaking for a 39-year-old coming off the injuries he battled—to his left and right and made all the plays you'd expect.
What's more, as the Yankees ramp up for their first game of the year, manager Joe Girardi has plenty of confidence in his shortstop, especially compared to what he saw from Jeter a year ago, telling Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today:
It was hard to watch last year because, as much as he said he was ready to go, he really wasn't. So I'm happy with where he's at. I don't make too much of spring training numbers because I've been on both sides of that.
As for Jeter himself? "I feel good," he told Ortiz. "That's the most important thing. Spring training's a progression, both physically and being game-ready. I'm where I want to be right now."
Jeter and the Yankees are going to need that to be more than just lip service. In order to help drive the team on a playoff push and avoid a second straight October-less campaign—which hasn't happened since 1993-1994—Jeter will have to be of sound mind and body on the field for the first time in quite a while.
If that happens, then, the 39-year-old shortstop can get to work at making memories and knocking down milestones on his way out the door. Like improving his ranking in the career-hits category, which is sure to move up a spot or two. Currently, he's 10th all-time with 3,316 knocks, and with a typical Jeter-ian season, he actually could encroach upon the top five, passing a few Hall of Famers along the way.
|Number of Hits Jeter Needs to Pass...|
|PLAYER||# HITS||ALL-TIME RANK|
But individual achievements never have been Jeter's bag. That's why it will be interesting to see how he handles himself while being the subject of the same kind of farewell—gifts, ceremonies and general adoration—that he witnessed longtime teammates and good buddies Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte receive as they wrapped up their careers last year.
In the case of Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, there was plenty of celebration and fond recollection from teammates, opponents, fans, coaches and others throughout the sport and in every city.
Jeter, whether he likes it or not, is in for similar treatment. Jeter might not welcome all that attention, but without a doubt, he would welcome one element of Rivera's farewell tour: the elite level of performance the Yankees great was able to maintain all the way to the end.
Even after a torn knee ligament required surgery and cost Rivera most of 2012, the future Hall of Famer returned to the diamond in 2013 and was his usual dominant self. As a 43-year-old, Rivera hurled 64.0 innings and posted a 2.11 ERA and 1.05 WHIP to go with 44 saves.
Certainly, Jeter would take that type of outcome from a personal-performance aspect. That would mean Jeter is once again one of the best shortstops in the sport, never mind one of the best players overall.
And yet, to be sure, Jeter wouldn't want anything to do with such an incredible individual effort if it also meant his 2014 season concluded like Rivera's 2013 did—without a trip to the postseason.
To that end, consider this: In baseball history, a player in his age-40 season like Jeter has reached 100 games and played at least 50 percent of them at the shortstop position only seven times, most recently Omar Vizquel in 2007 and Barry Larkin in 2004.
|Players with 100+ Games and At Least 50% At SS|
|PLAYER||YEAR||TEAM||GAMES||GAMES AT SS||AGE||TEAM W-L|
|Luke Appling||1949||White Sox||142||141||42||63-91|
|Luke Appling||1947||White Sox||139||129||40||70-84|
That same feat has only been accomplished by two other players, Honus Wagner and Luke Appling, whose careers came to a close in 1917 and 1950, respectively.
Now, take a gander at that last column on the right, the one that lists the teams' win-loss records in seasons where a 40-year-old was the primary shortstop. You'll notice that not a one was .500 or better. That's what Jeter, who hits the big 4-0 in June, and the Yankees are up against.
And yet, it's almost impossible to see a scenario in which the Yankees are at least a .500 club—let alone a playoff contender—in 2014 without Jeter playing 100 games at short, simply because they don't have any worthy alternatives. Defensive wizard Brendan Ryan, currently on the disabled list with a pinched nerve in his back, is only capable of being a late-inning replacement and occasional starter when Jeter needs a day off field duty.
Is it even conceivable that the Yankees could make a playoff push if Jeter isn't the guy out there on a regular basis? That might as well be a rhetorical question, since Jeter is going to have to prove he's both healthy and productive enough to become the lone exception to the above should he and the Yankees want a shot at one last October send-off together.
Ultimately, for Jeter and the Yankees, that's what 2014 is all about. Heck, that's what the past two decades have been about, ever since a baby-faced 21-year-old showed his uncanny flair for the dramatic by, fittingly enough, smacking his first career home run—which proved to be the game-winner—on Opening Day in 1996.
Eighteen years and five World Series titles later, Jeter and the Yankees have one more chance to turn his final season into one last hurrah. For Jeter, at last, the wait is over, the end is only just beginning. It's up to him and the Yankees to make it last as long as possible.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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