New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has vowed to return to his old self in 2014 after a lost 2013. At age 39, Captain Clutch was unable to perform this summer due to lingering pain and soreness in his left ankle fractured last fall.
Jeter appeared in just 17 games this season, batting a paltry .190. Observers noted his declining mobility in the field as well.
Though Jeter is resolved to come back as good as before, at some point, even he will have to give in to advancing age. The only question is when and how gracefully it will occur.
As any car guy or gal knows, old, worn clutches eventually begin to slip and have to be replaced.
I was asked recently if I thought this was the end for Jeter. My reply was “No.” Like his long-time teammate Mariano Rivera, who could have walked away after his 2012 knee surgery but did not, my guess is that Jeter wants to leave the game as a player on his own terms.
Given that, what should we – and the Yankees - expect from a 40-year-old shortstop in 2014? And what are the alternatives?
From these shortstops this season, the Yanks have received scant production - an aggregate line of .229/.289/.316/.605. The batting average and OPS are both 26th across the 30 MLB clubs' shortstop positions.
Along with Jeter’s status, one of the most pressing questions for next year’s Bombers is the fate of free-agent-to-be manager Joe Girardi. While Joe, a former teammate, has been one of Jeter’s biggest backers, how might things change if a new sheriff rides into the Big Apple?
That possibility reminds me of the situation in St. Louis back in 1996, as the Cardinals’ then-future Hall-of-Fame shortstop was nearing the end of his playing days.
41-year-old Ozzie Smith was coming off an injury-plagued 1995, during which he could answer the bell for just 44 contests and batted an embarrassing, career-worst .199. His Cardinals had long been a shell of their 1980’s greatness, missing the post-season for eight consecutive years.
Yet there was renewed hope in the Gateway City. A new ownership group led by Bill DeWitt, Jr. was in place and willing to invest. An up-and-coming general manager in Walt Jocketty lured his friend and former Oakland co-worker Tony La Russa to take the on-field reigns of the Cardinals.
Smith did not want to retire with the bitter taste of 1995 as his MLB finale, so he committed himself to getting his body ready to play again in 1996. The Wizard soon learned he would face a challenge for his job, however.
Jocketty engineered a trade with the Giants in December 1995, bringing in shortstop Royce Clayton. The 24-year-old was not acquired to be an understudy. Clayton had already put in over 3 ½ major league seasons as San Francisco’s starting shortstop.
Smith’s interpretation of La Russa’s plan for the skipper’s first spring training with St. Louis was to include an open competition between the two shortstops. It did not play out that way. Despite Ozzie having a better spring at the plate, the future Hall of Fame manager did not declare a firm winner.
As 1996 progressed, Clayton played regularly at Smith’s expense. The former went on to make 531 regular-season plate appearances plus 30 more in the postseason, while the latter had less than half, at just 261 and 14, respectively. Still, when called upon, Ozzie produced, with a bounce-back line of .282/.358/.370. The 41-year-old’s .728 OPS was his second-best showing since St. Louis’ last postseason year of 1987.
Smith deeply resented his treatment by La Russa. Though he retired at season’s end, Ozzie held a grudge that remains to this day. That included the Wizard’s refusal to be around the Cardinals for the duration of the manager’s stay in St. Louis – 15 long years.
No one should blame Yankees general manager Brian Cashman if he tries to address his club’s post-Jeter shortstop needs before the Captain decides to remove his cleats for the last time. After all, 2013 proved to be a disaster for the position. With the Yankees having been so close to making the postseason, who knows if having a healthy, productive shortstop might not have been the difference-maker.
No matter how it plays out going forward, here is hoping Jeter’s exit from the game is far smoother than the one taken by his Hall of Fame predecessor Smith.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 14-year history. Though he is the only one to remember or care, he also finished second in each of the two subsequent seasons. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.