I read three very different takes on the Derek Jeter deal on Sunday. For a contract that seemed relatively uncontroversial to me at first glance — the Yankees overpaid for Jeter like you knew they would, but not insanely — it’s inspired a remarkably wide variety of opinions, and illuminated the strikingly different points of view that make up baseball commentary these days.
The first one I read is from Mike Lupica (I know, I know), and is headlined “Shame on Yankees for dropping ball and insulting Derek Jeter during heated contract talks.” Lupica comes down firmly on the side of the Jeter camp:
…[The Yankees] wanted it to look, in the more heated parts of this, as though Jeter was the greedy one. They were twitchy to get out there what they said Jeter wanted, were delighted to get in the papers that Jeter wanted $23 million or $24 million a year, whatever the Yankees said he was asking for. Not just delighted. Thrilled.
They thought it made them look good. But you know who has always made them look good? Jeter has…
…Now they think they protect that brand by giving him this kind of hard time, taking this kind of hard line. I talked to one respected baseball guy in the middle of this, watching this all play out, and asked if Jeter will ever forget the way this all played out, being told in public to go find a better offer if he thought he could.
There was a pause at the other end of the phone and then the guy said, “Never.”
Lupica concludes, “You can’t be a better Yankee than Jeter has been. It is the Yankees who will someday wish they had done things better on this.”
Then we have Mike Vaccaro of the Post weighing in with “Deal saves Derek from becoming Captain Crook.”
Derek Jeter may not realize this right now, and he probably would never admit it even if he drank a Big Gulp of truth serum, but the Yankees did him a favor by playing this modest version of hardball, by refusing to empty the vault for him and foisting a pay cut on him.
By agreeing to a three-year deal worth $17 million annually plus an option for a fourth year and incentives, the Yankees came up a little and Jeter came down a lot, and if the compromise landed closer to the Yankees’ target number than to Jeter’s, it will still benefit the Captain in ways he can’t possibly appreciate yet.
Because throughout a career that already has netted him over $200 million in salary, Jeter never once had been hounded by his wealth. How many athletes can say that? Any player, any sport, who breaks the bank, the bank always is there alongside him, shadowing every move he makes. Ask Amar’e Stoudemire. Ask Johan Santana. Ask CC Sabathia. Ask the patron saint of all of them, Alex Rodriguez.
Jeter? Until the past few weeks, the money he has earned has been almost incidental, which is just another charmed way that he has smartly led his professional life.
Finally, over at SI.com, Joe Sheehan brings us “New York Yankees paying for what Jeter has already done” (You should click over and read the whole thing):
There’s no way around it: this is a contract that pays Jeter for what he has done, rather than what he is expected to do. It is sui generis, disconnected completely from market forces. Miguel Tejada, who was a bit worse than Jeter this year at the same age, was guaranteed about 15 percent of what Jeter got. Orlando Cabrera, a year younger and about as effective as Tejada last year, might not get that. Heck, it’s not that much less than what Troy Tulowitzki, one of the best players in baseball, is guaranteed at the peak of his six-year extension. The Yankees, not wanting to deal with the backlash, not able to replace Jeter with a star, not willing — for all their bluster — to treat him like a 36-year-old shortstop coming off a career-worst year, aren’t paying Jeter; they’re paying off Jeter.
The most likely scenario is that Jeter continues to decline, if not in a straight line, in a noticeable pattern over the life of the deal. His contract may be without compare, but as a player he’s one of many aging superstars, and the ones he most resembles statistically — such as Robin Yount, Alan Trammell and Craig Biggio — were not good everyday players after 36. There are precious few examples, in baseball history, of players even able to play shortstop regularly in their late 30s, and the ones who did successfully were excellent defensive players in their prime, a label that even his most ardent defenders wouldn’t hang on Jeter.
This is a huge problem for the Yankees, who have no place else to play Jeter due to the makeup of their roster and payroll. Worse still, any further offensive decline will make moving him a moot point, as his bat won’t play anywhere but shortstop. The money is spent, and the challenge for the Yankees over the next three seasons is to do what they couldn’t do in this negotiation: evaluate their shortstop based on his contributions to what is supposed to be the sole goal of the organization: winning a championship.
So here we have the Yankees screwing Jeter; the Yankees doing him a favor by cutting his pay; and the Yankees screwing themselves by giving him far too much. And I think that both Mike Vaccaro and Joe Sheehan make good points here. As for Lupica, I have a hard time believing that he really thinks the Yankees insulted Jeter (though if it’s true that all the leaks about what Jeter was asking for came from the Yankee front office, well, that is pretty interesting). The Jeter negotiations were not “heated”; “heated” is what will happen if Joe Sheehan and Mike Lupica are ever locked in a room together. Would it have been better if negotiations had been kept out of the media a bit more? Sure. But urging Jeter to test the market is hardly unfair or cruel.
I think that, as usual, Joe Sheehan is right from a pure baseball perspective — this contract, no matter how much less it may be than what Jeter wanted, is still vastly more than any other shortstop that age would ever get, and enough that if Jeter declines as the vast majority of late-thirties shortstops do, it will put the Yanks in a very tough spot. With that said, I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to pay someone, in part, for their past achievements. Of course they couldn’t just give him, as many fans (and apparently Mike Lupica) suggested, “whatever he wants,” but I want to see Jeter get his 3,000th hit as a Yankee; I want to see him play his last game as a Yankee. If the tradeoff is that the Yankees can’t afford to spend quite so much on other free agents over the next three years, and if that hurts their postseason chances somewhat, then I can live with that, even while I realize that Joe has probably called this one correctly, and there are headaches ahead.
I also agree with what Vaccaro had to say. I was surprised by the reports of what Jeter was said to be asking for, if only because he has generally played such a smooth PR game, and suddenly he seemed tone deaf. More than $100 million? Five or six years? That would have been a terribly unwise move for the Yankees (as opposed to the merely somewhat unwise move they eventually made), and it would have made Jeter look pretty awful. I make it a point to never get angry at players for trying to pry as much money as they can out of team owners, who are, without exception, exceedingly wealthy multimillionaires. But Jeter was asking for a truly irrational deal, and it would have changed the way fans looked at him — some nice memories on his way to retirement would not nearly justify that kind of money. Now, the way things worked out, he doesn’t have a massive contract he can’t possibly live up to shadowing his every remaining move.
Or… well, he kind of does. But it could be a lot worse.