The twilight years of any legendary athlete's career are often filled with hilarious hyperbole from fans and sports analysts. For Derek Jeter, the only New York Yankees' shortstop many fans have known, the situation is no different.
When a player reaches a certain age, which varies based on the sport he or she plays, every year thereafter that player is subjected to intense scrutiny.
For example, in 2002, when Curtis Martin was at the age of 29 and only rushed for 1,094 yards, all speculation was that, as he turned 30, the aged running back would soon break down.
Two years later, at the age of 31, Martin was coming off two seasons in which he ran for over 3,000 yards combined, and everybody was wondering how much longer he could keep it up. Unfortunately, Martin's body broke down the following year, and he rode off into the sunset.
Rare is the athlete who can extend the twilight of a career well past its prime. For every Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Pete Rose, or Nolan Ryan, there are countless Shaun Alexanders, Jimmie Foxxes, and Bob Fellers.
Which brings us to perhaps the most scrutinized athlete of advanced age today, Jeter.
The scrutiny surrounding his play has been heightened by two things: the fact that he is a New York Yankee, and the fact that he is in the final year of his contract. The Yankee captain will likely receive a monstrous new contract from the Bronx Bombers no matter how he performed this season.
While there is rampant speculation that the Yankees are going to have to give Jeter a deal somewhere in the range of Alex Rodriguez' latest contract extension to sate the star's ego, the only way that will happen is if the Yankees do it out of the goodwill of their hearts.
What other team is going to pay the kind of money the Yankees will offer Jeter? Would any other team even blink if Jeter asked for anywhere near $20 million a year or laugh at him?
At age 36, Jeter has played the worst baseball of his career. He plays subpar defense, his ground-ball rate is astronomically high, and his .707 OPS is the worst of his career.
Even more frightening is a look at Jeter's Similarity Scores on baseballreference.com, where such names as Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg, and Alan Trammell abound.
All four were middle infielders whose careers were all but finished following their age-36 season.
Alan Trammell wasn't even a regular starter by the time he was 36. In 311 plate appearances that year, he posted a slash line of .267/.307/.414.
Ryne Sandberg returned from a one-year retirement to post a pretty decent age-36 season (.244/.316/.444 in 621 plate appearances), but retired after his age-37 season following a .264/.308/.403 slash line in just 480 plate appearances.
Barry Larkin, the player with the highest similarity score to Jeter, played well in 447 plate appearances of his age-36 season, but posted a combined line of .266/.334/.385, mostly as a part-time player, in four seasons after that.
Draw your own conclusions, but one thing is fairly obvious: Jeter is right around the age where most middle infielders fall off the face of the earth performance-wise. His numbers this season do not exactly inspire confidence that he will be an exception to this trend.
So if he persists in playing, which he will do, the question for the Yankees becomes how best they can maximize their expenditure on an aging player most likely in a decline.
The Yankees will pay Jeter—a lot.
The chances are slim that Jeter will be worth the money the Yankees pay him, but the key will be to make him worth as much of the mega-deal he will receive as possible and to keep him performing later in his career.
There is only one way to do that: Switch his position.
This is an opportune time for the Yankees to do this. They have 23-year-old Eduardo Nunez primed to take over the shortstop position. While Nunez isn't great with the bat, he provides strong defense up the middle and another set of legs to wreak havoc on the basepaths.
Even if the Yankees aren't willing to turn the position over to Nunez full-time, there are several free agents they can sign to platoon with Nunez, including Alex Gonzalez, J.J. Hardy, and Christian Guzman.
But to which position would they move Jeter?
Pete Rose extended his career by moving first to third base and finally to first base. Cal Ripken Jr., at 36, moved from shortstop to third base and bought himself a couple of extra years. But neither third base nor first base is an option for the Yankees, as Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are entrenched at those positions.
They could move him to the outfield, but how much good would that do? People regularly complain about Jeter's range and arm at shortstop. How much of an improvement would we see if he were moved to the outfield?
And who would he replace: Nick Swisher, Brett Gardner, or Curtis Granderson? He couldn't play center field.
This next suggestion may sound crazy, but it just might work. What if the Yankees made Derek Jeter their designated hitter?
This season the Yankees have used 12 different designated hitters. They do not have anybody that must be the designated hitter. Why not make it Jeter?
Such a move is not unprecedented.
Paul Molitor was an infielder. In his 13 seasons playing the field, Molitor posted a line of .299/.361/.437. In 1991, at the age of 34, Molitor began to primarily DH. In the ensuing eight seasons, Molitor posted an improved line of .316/.380/.462.
Isn't it feasible that a player as talented as Jeter could see a similar resurgence if he were able to focus primarily on hitting? If he were able to start hitting well again, the Yankees would not be wasting the DH spot regardless of Jeter's lack of power.
What are the obstacles for such a move occurring? Two immediately jump to mind: the unfamiliarity of Jeter in the DH position that will have many fans protesting the idea, and Jeter's pride.
Only the second obstacle is a matter for concern. Fans will get over the move when Jeter starts to hit again. But the move can never occur if Jeter will not OK it. The Yankees are not going to offend their superstar or alienate him by trying to force him to do something he doesn't want to.
Jeter has built up a lot of goodwill with the Yankees, and for that he will get a contract from them that no other team in their right mind would dare offer him. So doesn't Jeter owe the Yankees something in return? Doesn't he owe them the flexibility to put together the best possible team?
This is not to mention that this move might even be good for Jeter. He already has a sterling reputation, but how much more praise would be heaped on him if he selflessly moved aside for the benefit of the team?
Think of how this could prolong Jeter's career.
If the move works out he could spend another five years as a productive hitter. Regarding most hits in a career, such a turn of events would put Jeter in the rarefied air of players such as Stan Musial and Hank Aaron, and maybe it would give him an outside shot at Pete Rose's record.
Or maybe not.
But doesn't Jeter owe it to himself, the Yankees, and his fans to maximize his chances of making his legacy as grand as possible?
As a shortstop, Jeter becomes a liability. As a DH, who knows?
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