TAMPA, Fla. -- You will see less of Derek Jeter than ever this spring training, but not because New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi plans to play him in fewer preseason games in order to preserve his soon-to-be 40-year-old shortstop for the regular season.
Jeter came to the final camp of his major league life 5 to 6 pounds lighter than he has been in previous years in an effort to reduce the strain on his surgically repaired left ankle, which caused him to miss all but 17 games in 2013.
"I did a lot of conditioning, a lot of running," Jeter said Thursday after the first full-squad workout at George M. Steinbrenner Field. “I wanted to be a little lighter, take some pressure off my legs and move around a little bit better.”
A little more than a year after a tabloid headline writer called him “Derek Eater," it was a noticeably leaner Jeter who took the field for infield practice and several rounds of live batting practice. Having weighed 199 in previous seasons, Jeter said he came to camp this year at 193 pounds after an offseason of healthier eating and more intensive workouts.
As a result, Jeter said he felt significantly better this spring than last.
“There’s no comparison," he said. “I was out of the boot [last] January and trying to play a game March 1. There’s no comparison whatsoever because I’ve had four months to basically only strengthen my legs. I can’t compare last year and this year.”
When it was pointed out to Jeter that he insisted he felt great at this point last spring, he admitted he might have been less than candid at that time.
“True, you’re right," he said. “I’m always going to tell you I’m fine. But this year, I mean it.”
Even without knowing about the weight loss, Girardi said he could see the difference between this year’s Jeter and the one who hobbled through spring training and spent most of the season on the disabled list.
“I would say last year at times, just going through what you might consider everyday activity and jogs, running the bases, you would notice it," Girardi said. “His running looked normal to me, what I was used to seeing from him in the past. Today it looked like he never got hurt."
Still, with all the eyeballs on Jeter in this, his final training camp, none will be trained closer on him than Girardi’s. “It’s not normal for me to necessarily peek at him when he was running his sprints, and stretching,” Girardi said. “But I am going to be aware of that and pay attention to it.”
Jeter led the club in some running drills Thursday afternoon and looked smooth fielding grounders at shortstop and practicing flips to Brian Roberts, his new double-play partner at second.
“I feel good,” Jeter said. “It’s not an issue anymore in my mind. It feels good to get out there. Hopefully I won’t have to address my ankle for too many more days because it feels good.”
Girardi said he would likely hold Jeter out of the first game or two of the exhibition schedule. The Yankees play their first game Feb. 25 against Florida State, and their first “real” game the next day against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Bradenton. But Girardi hopes eventually to be able to play Jeter three games in a row at shortstop later in the spring.
Last spring, Jeter was unable to play more than five innings at a time, and never more than two days in a row, without needing to be shut down.
“We don’t really have a lot of restrictions on him right now,” Girardi said. “I’m not sure in the last five years, if I’ve ever played him more than three days in a row, but that would be my goal. If, in the last week or so, I play him three days in a row twice, he’s playing six out of seven days.”
Girardi also said he thought 60 spring training at-bats should be enough for Jeter to be ready for the regular season.
“One thing I’ve learned here is that it’s not important to be ready for the first spring training game,” Jeter said. “It’s important to be ready for Opening Day. So there’s a progression with things. We ran today. We’ll run more the rest of spring. I don’t think you do everything the first day.”
A day after he vowed to enjoy himself more in his 20th and final big league season, Jeter seemed to have a good time in his first workout, taking time to read several signs in the stands with his name and picture on them, interacting with fans and laughing with his teammates around the batting cage.
“I always have fun,” Jeter said. “My point in that was to just stop trying to look forward to when things are over with. I think the point of this season is every time I'm doing something, it’s the last time that I’m going to be doing it.”