Last Sunday, two of the greatest Yankees in that team's storied history, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, pitched in Yankee Stadium for the last time in their respective careers. It was a bittersweet day for Yankee fans as they remembered the tremendous contributions the stalwart left-handed starter and legendary closer had made to the team, while knowing that both players will be missed in the future. Many Yankee fans are now thinking of what the future holds for the greatest Yankee of the last 40 years, Derek Jeter.
The Yankees are in a difficult position with Jeter, one that is made more difficult by the unique role that Jeter plays in team's image and brand. The on-the-field situation is relatively straightforward. Barring an extraordinary comeback for a player of his age, Jeter is likely no longer valuable as a full time shortstop. Never a great defender by most measures, Jeter has looked worse in the field this year, and as a 40-year-old shortstop next year will face a very difficult challenge. Jeter is, however, only one year removed from being a valuable offensive player, so the possibility, if he is able to get back to being close to where he was at the plate in 2012, of playing a few games at short, some at DH and some at other positions, and helping the team that way should not be ruled out. However, Jeter himself has made it clear that he wants to play shortstop next year.
If this were another player, the Yankees would probably try to move him to another team or persuade him to be more flexible, but the Yankees have invested hundreds of millions of dollars not just in Jeter the player, but in Jeter as the face of the franchise. They cannot risk damaging that now by either having an acrimonious fallout with the future Hall of Famer or seeing him spend a year in the uniform of another team.
Jeter, therefore, has some leverage with the Yankees, but the Yankees have some leverage with Jeter too. Jeter has invested a great deal of time and energy into cultivating an image of himself as loyal, sincere, hard-working, and a team player. This has made Jeter one of the most marketable figures in sports today. Jeopardizing that image on the off-chance he can still contribute as a full time shortstop would not be a wise decision. Therein lies the potential for a compromise that works for both Jeter and the Yankees.
Jeter has few more milestones that are within reach. With three more hits, he will tie Paul Molitor for ninth place on the all time hit list. Once he does that he will have had more hits than any player who started his career after 1970. Next on the list are Carl Yastrzemski and Honus Wagner, but unless he comes back at near full strength, Jeter is unlikely to get the 100 hits needed to catch them. Jeter has currently played the third most games at shortstop in history. It is conceivable that he could play 37 more games at the position to tie Luis Aparicio for second, but would need 173 games at the position to catch Omar Vizquel. For Jeter, spending some time racking up counting statistics would not be fruitful and would not help his already exulted place in the game's history. This strengthens the possibility of compromise between Jeter and the only employer he has had in his adult life.
Forcing Jeter to retire or abandon the shortstop position is only going to create problems for the Yankees and Jeter. Additionally, if Jeter can still contribute, he would bring value to the team. Similarly, committing to Jeter for the whole season is likely going to hurt the team and possibly put the Yankees in a difficult position if Jeter does not significantly improve over his 2013 season. The Yankees should allow Jeter to exercise his option. However, the team and the player should have an understanding that if Jeter, within the first few months of the season, is clearly no longer able to play at an elite level, he should announce a retirement date for a suitable point either in the middle of the season or at the end of the season. If it is the latter, the understanding should be that he will not be a full time player for the duration of the season.
Working that agreement out will not be easy, but the Yankees can offer incentives. The most obvious is a generous personal services contract that would begin the day after Jeter retires. This contract could guarantee Jeter a substantial income well into his retirement, and ensure Jeter's role with the team after he is done playing. The latter point would benefit both the Yankees and Jeter. The money itself is not an issue for the Yankees, particularly as it would not count towards baseball's luxury tax.
Jeter, and many Yankee fans, will have a hard time recognizing that Jeter is no longer the player he once was, but that is almost certainly the case. Navigating the end of Jeter's career so that it ends without him playing for another team, and with the appropriate fanfare and celebration, is in the interest of both Jeter and the Yankees. Seeing Jeter play poorly at shortstop and be a shadow of what he once was at the plate is in neither of their interests. Moving forward with that in mind is doable, but will require compromise by both sides.