Thursday, February 13, 2014

What to Expect From Jeter?

An old, hurt, and washed-up Jeter has reached the end of the line (CBS)
Yesterday Derek Jeter sent shock waves through the baseball world when he announced the 2014 season will be his last. Like Mariano Rivera and Chipper Jones before him, Jeter will get to have a great farewell tour in his last go-round through the big leagues, giving fans everywhere one last opportunity to celebrate him before he heads off into retirement.

The news got me thinking: how is Jeter's final season going to play out on the diamond?

I see 2014--Jeter's 20th season--following one of two possible scenarios for him and his Yankees. The first has him playing well and New York making the playoffs, because that's what has happened most years of Jeter's career. The Yankees have missed the postseason just twice since he debuted in 1995, and maybe it would have only been once if Jeter was healthy last year and New York didn't have to lean on fill-ins Eduardo Nunez (-1.5 bWAR) and Reid Brignac.

As for Jeter's individual performance, don't forget how good he was the last time he was healthy. He's only one year removed from hitting .316/.362/.429 and leading the majors with 216 hits. Jeter probably isn't that player anymore, even if he was in the not-so-distant past. Still, expecting a strong closing act from Jeter isn't that far-fetched. It could happen. Just last year, Rivera came back from a torn ACL to pitch brilliantly at age 43. Surely Jeter's hoping to end his career on a high note as well.

But most players don't, and it's unlikely that Jeter will be one of the rare exceptions. He's going to turn 40 in June and played only 17 games last year. Plus he was terrible in those 17 games, hitting .190/.288/.254. He's at an age when even the best shortstops cease to be effective, and given last year's injury woes it's hard to predict some combination of Jeter staying healthy and productive in 2014. The projection systems on FanGraphs expect him to play around 120 games while hitting .270/.340/.375, well below his career norms, and even those estimates might be too generous.

The optimist in me wants to believe the Captain can keep stinging line drives and using that inside-out swing to dump singles into right field for one more summer, that he can hit something close to his .312 career average and not be a complete disaster at shortstop and lead New York deep into October. I'm a Red Sox fan, and I'd still love to see him craft the fairy-tale ending to his storybook career.

But the logical side of me--the part that knows better--sees Jeter struggling to survive his last season as a shell of his former self. We've seen it happen too many times in every sport, even to the greatest Yankees like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. Father Time catches up to everyone at some point, which is why so few athletes go out on top. Not everyone gets to hit a home run in his final at-bat like Ted Williams did.

So we shouldn't expect Jeter to, especially since he's averaged only eight home runs per season over the last four years.

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