Tuesday October 5th, 2010

This is Derek Jeter's time of year. I don't mean that in the typical, loaded, Derek the deity kind of way -- like he just texted the ghosts of Gehrig and DiMaggio and is ready to lead the Yankees to their rightful place atop the universe. I mean this will be the most fascinating postseason of Jeter's remarkable career. It shouldn't be about him, but it is anyway.

Jeter is a 36-year-old shortstop who just finished the worst season of his career (.270, 67 RBIs). He will be a free agent this offseason. There has been a lot of talk about that free agency -- how the Yankees can't afford the p.r. hit of losing him on the eve of his 3,000th hit (he needs 74 to reach the milestone), and how they might give Jeter a huge deal because he is Derek Jeter. SI.com's excellent baseball writer, Jon Heyman, recently surveyed executives and general managers and found that a new Jeter deal could cost between $30 and $50 million.

And it makes me wonder:

What if the Yankees win and Jeter doesn't contribute much? That is what happened for most of this season. The Yankees may discover they can do this without him -- and more than that, a lot of their fans might realize it. It could give the Yankees negotiating leverage.

What if the Yankees win and Jeter does contribute a lot? Or, for that matter, what if he is one of their best hitters in the playoffs but they lose? Wouldn't that ratchet up the heat on the Yankees to give Derek his due?

This isn't just about money. It is about Jeter's true value -- it is the latest, and maybe the last, public battle over how Jeter is perceived.

Sixteen years into his Hall of Fame career, Jeter is both an immensely popular and polarizing figure -- perhaps, in the 21st century, you can't be one without the other. It is amazing that a man who says so little can evoke such strong reactions.

Generally speaking, fans and media fall into three groups when it comes to Jeter.

The first group, of course, thinks Jeter is the One True Yankee, the glue to the current dynasty, a man whose obvious skills only tell part of his story. Jeter is Captain Clutch, the one who instinctively gets what it means to be a Yankee, and he rises to the moment like no player of his generation. You have heard all this before: winner, flip play vs. the A's, etc.

You can try to reason with these people, but I wouldn't try it until you're on your second drink. You can point out that Jeter's excellent postseason numbers (.313 batting average, .383 on-base percentage, .479 slugging) are remarkably in line with his regular-season numbers (.314, .385, .452), and they'll say that's not the point, man, his greatness transcends his numbers.

Then there is the second group, which is at war with the first group. (Some would say WAR. That's a stats joke, and you know what's funny about stats jokes? Nothing. So never mind.) This group considers Jeter a media creation, a good player who is overrated by the Captain Clutch crowd.

For fun, I recommend asking this second group about Jeter's intangibles. When you see the veins on their forehead start to bulge, say "I don't know what the stats say, but I just love how he plays the game," then call an ambulance. One of you will need it.

And then there is the third group, which is probably bigger than we realize. In fact, I think it's the biggest group. I'm biased because I'm in it, but I believe it is the most reasonable, most honest and best-looking group.

This group thinks Jeter is an undeniably great player who gets a little overrated by sappy Yankees fans. We think his offensive excellence has more than offset his defensive deficiencies, both real and imagined, even if he is no Albert Pujols. And we think that yes, he does bring some things to the table that are hard to quantify.

It says so much about Jeter that in an SI Players Poll earlier this year, his colleagues voted him one of the nicest players in baseball. Think about that: nobody in the sport has been praised as much as Jeter, and yet his fellow players still think he is one of the nicest guys in baseball. Jeter cannot only handle New York, but he helps other players handle New York. He is always steady in the nonstop media swirl. He always puts the team ahead of himself. He sets an example with his work ethic, his intelligence and treatment of others.

I believe there is value in all of those attributes, just as there would be value in leadership skills and work ethic in any other business. But come on: that value is not $20 million per year. I mean, that is just absurd.

The idea that the Yankees owe Jeter a big contract because of all he has done for them is laughable. The Yankees have already paid Derek Jeter more than $200 million to play baseball for them. The Yankees have no regrets about that. It was money well spent. But let's not act like Jeter has been working pro bono all these years.

Can the Yankees afford to give Jeter $60 million when he deserves $15 million? Yeah, probably. But for the first time in many years, the Yankees are in danger of reaching the bottom of their wallet.

Consider that, for the 2013 season, they have already committed to pay:

• $29 million to 38-year-old Alex Rodriguez

• $24 million to 33-year-old CC Sabathia

• $23 million to 33-year-old Mark Teixeira

• $16 million to 36-year-old A.J. Burnett

That is $92 million to four players in the latter half of their careers. That doesn't mean that it will all be wasted -- Sabathia and Teixeira could conceivably be Cy Young and MVP candidates at that point, and Burnett might even be able to throw two strikes in a row again. But if the Yankees give Jeter, say, a three-year deal for $48 million as a thank-you note, that will give them $108 million in high-risk contracts for 2013.

That won't make them the Marlins. But it could take away a big chunk of the Yankees' financial advantage over their American League East rivals. I would find it absolutely hilarious if that happens -- only the Yankees could take an unlimited budget and exceed it. But I don't think Brian Cashman would find it very funny.

The Yankees have said very little about Jeter's looming free agency -- the last thing they want is for this to get ugly. But baseball teams are not in the habit of spending an extra $30 million for no reason. I imagine the Yankees will offer Jeter something slightly above market value, figuring nobody will match it.

There is a catch, though: At the end of the season, Jeter got hot. He got hits in 19 of his last 20 games and hit .326 in that span. He did it without much power (four doubles, no triples, no homers), but hey, if he hits like that in the postseason, the Yankees will be happy.

This late streak has already led to familiar praise of Jeter: You can't count him out in September and October ... he's a gamer! If Jeter has two good postseason weeks, it could create another wave of stories about his presence, his aura, his meaning to the Yankees. And it could earn him a bigger contract. Funny thing about Derek Jeter: all these years, people acted like there was something magical about him, when really, he was just a great and admirable baseball player. Now, to be paid like a great player, he needs to find somebody who believes in magic.

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