We've seen it throughout the years, as teams encounter difficult decisions, when long-serving veterans and fan-favorites enter the inevitable, athletic decline phase of their careers.
No one can escape the clutches of the dreaded father time, when a player's body simply cannot do the same things that it could during the prime of his youth. Maybe it's the eyesight, maybe the legs feel heavier and the footwork slower, the hands a tick behind Major League fastballs.
For all their apparent super-human qualities, athletes face a rather dramatic fall from grace as they enter the winter of their playing days. The physical gifts that set them apart from mere mortals begin to fade, rendering them human once again as they prepare for life after professional sports.
This is the critical juncture at which teams must decide between loyal sentimentality, and doing what is collectively beneficial for the future of their organization. Does it best serve the team to reward a player for his past contributions and commitment to the cause; or is it worth it to risk the wrath of the fans by severing ties with a long-standing member of the squad?
In recent seasons, the Yankees have struggled with this scenario, as various older members of the team have come up for contract renewal. Being the Yankees, the financial restrictions that face most other teams don't necessarily come into play. The team has had the ability to retain veterans, even at inflated prices, when many other teams would have been forced into saying their goodbyes.
From the other side of the AL East divide, we have fairly recently witnessed the Boston Red Sox cut ties with several critical players whom they either felt no longer fit into the long-term vision, or simply didn't warrant the commitment in dollars and years that the players were seeking. Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon were allowed to walk in free agency, when management reached the decision that neither were critical to the team's future at the free agent costs that they were likely to command. Manny and Nomar were both traded away mid-season in an effort to reduce existing tensions and potentially bolster the team's likelihood of advancing deep into the post-season.
Of course, as great as some of those Red Sox players were, none of them were Derek Jeter.
Following the bright lights and crisp nights of October baseball, and the potential defense of their World Series title, the Yankees will find themselves embroiled in contract negotiations to determine the future of their homegrown captain and most popular player.
No one in their right mind truly believes that Derek Jeter is going to play for another baseball team in 2011. The prospect is nearly inconceivable. Try imagining the Yankee captain and short-stop of 16 seasons in a different uniform than the familiar pinstripes or road grays. It's tough to even trick your mind into entertaining the notion without it reverting to images of Jeter in Yankee pinstripes. Even during the World Baseball Classic, seeing the face of the New York Yankees in the Team USA jersey didn't seem quite right.
That's what makes this scenario so difficult to handle for the team. Derek Jeter is the captain, the face of the Yankee's most recent run of success, bridging the gap between the Joe Torre era and the 2009 Championship squad. Jeter is arguably the most recognizable and marketable player in all of Major League Baseball. His value extends far beyond the diamond.
However, regardless of a player's leadership, marketability and various intangible qualities, a team must seriously consider how much to factor in those issues while evaluating a player's future value as his playing skills inevitably deteriorate.
After watching Jeter produce one of his finest seasons in 2009, en route to the Yankees' fifth World Series ring during his tenure, it seemed as if this immortal would continue on his established path toward Cooperstown forever.
Many fans figured the team would bypass the team's consistent practice of waiting until a contract is over, before negotiating an extension in the off-season, thereby alleviating the pressure on Jeter to perform in a "contract year", and rewarding him for his faithful allegiance to the Yankee cause. The team however, steadfastly refused to deviate from their plan, preferring to wait until Jeter's contract expired after the 2010 season, before even considering renewing his deal.
Then the 2010 season happened.
Undoubtedly, the Yankees would have preferred another Hall of Fame caliber season from Derek Jeter this year, but his significant decline in performance during 2010, has given the decision to wait on any contract decisions an appearance of a masterstroke by management. By declining to sign him immediately following an MVP-caliber season in 2009, the team likely saved themselves many millions of dollars of future financial commitment to Derek Jeter beyond 2010.
Aside from perhaps saving the team a significant amount of money, Derek Jeter's sudden descent into normalcy is prompting several questions in regards to Jeter's future with the Yankees.
Standing at 2,893 career hits, with just over 30 games remaining this season, Jeter is in prime position to join the 3,000 hit club sometime during the first half of 2011. Considering that he is already the Yankee's all-time hits leader, and the fact that not one player has ever accomplished the feat as a Yankee, fans can rest assured that he will continue his pursuit of history in the Bronx.
The outside chance that he could someday challenge Pete Rose's all-time record of 4,296 looms as a potential goal, however unlikely it may be. If Jeter were so inclined to chase down that lofty ambition, that would likely throw significant doubt upon his ability to remain a Yankee, as they would have trouble committing to such a long-term pursuit, even for Derek Jeter.
1,403 hits is a rather long way away for a 36-year-old ball-player though, so we'll save that dream for another day.
In the likely scenario that the Yankees do retain the services of Derek Sanderson Jeter, the question then becomes, "what is his position?"
Since claiming the Yankee short-stop duties from Tony Fernandez before the 1996 season, Jeter has made the spot his own, rarely missing much time aside from a freak injury on Opening Day 2003. The 11-time All-Star even withstood the arrival of former MVP Alex Rodriguez, who, while many thought he was the superior short-stop, moved to third in deference to Derek Jeter.
The image of Derek Jeter manning short-stop for the Yankees is as familiar as any in modern baseball. Realistically though, how much longer can we expect to see him jog out to his position on a daily basis?
Jeter has long been criticized for his defensive shortcomings, despite the fact that he has thus far been awarded four Rawlings Gold Glove awards. Critics have gone so far as to call him "the least effective defensive player at any position in baseball." As we all have likely witnessed, Gold Gloves are often awarded to solid fielders who also happen to hit well, so they are not necessarily a precise indicator of a player's fielding ability. However, the assessment that he may be "the least effective defensive player at any position," would lead me to wonder if Bill James and his statistical gurus hadn't somehow missed out on a bunch of other terrible fielders over the course of their analysis.
I feel that the truth lies somewhere between Gold Glove caliber and the absolutely atrocious level that Jeter's detractors would have you believe.
However you rate his defensive prowess, it is a well-documented fact that championship teams rarely include aging starting short-stops. In fact, including the 2009 Yankees, there have only been four teams to win the World Series with a starting short-stop over the age of 35, and last year, Jeter became the first since a 37-year-old Pee Wee Reese won with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955.
Obviously, the 2010 Yankees have no choice but to attempt to defend their World Series title with Jeter at short. Given his impending free agency however, the 2011 and beyond Yankees may find it necessary to explore their available options, rather than keep trying to turn back the hands of time.
If the Yankees make the decision to look elsewhere for a short-stop solution in the near future, then the question becomes, "where else does Jeter fit in with the Yankees?"