Let's get one thing out of the way right off of the bat: Derek Jeter is an all-time great for the New York Yankees, and he'll one day be enshrined in Cooperstown. While clearly past his prime, the 36-year-old is still a useful player ... at the right price.
In the biggest soap opera of the offseason, the Yankees appear to be taking a hard-line stance in contract negotiations with their shortstop. It's the smart play. Why? Because they know the above paragraph is 100 percent true. They also know that Jeter needs the Yankees far more than the Yankees need him, for a variety of reasons.
For starters, the Yankees are the only team that might consider giving Jeter eight figures a season, mostly for PR reasons that have little to do with on-field production. But more importantly, Jeter knows that he isn't "Derek Jeter" wearing any other uniform. Sure, he would still put up the same numbers, but the perception of him as a winner is driven by the image of him in pinstripes. If he really threatens to sign elsewhere, then general manager Brian Cashman should call his bluff. New York won 95 games last year almost in spite of Jeter, and although his .270 batting average/.340 on-base percentage/.370 slugging percentage isn't bad for a shortstop, his production is easily replaceable, particularly when you factor in his porous defense (that inexplicable Gold Glove award notwithstanding).
Last offseason, then 34-year-old shortstop Marco Scutaro signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with the Boston Red Sox on the heels of posting a .379 on-base percentage for the Blue Jays. It's hard to imagine the market for Jeter would be that much more robust. Why should the Yankees pay him a lot more than what the market demands? They don't owe Jeter anything, having paid him in excess of $200 million in his career and given him a platform for fame and fortune beyond what any boy from Kalamazoo, Mich., could possibly imagine.
Within the clubhouse, players often judge themselves based on their paychecks, and I'm sure it sticks in Jeter's craw that Alex Rodriguez will be making more than $20 million a year for the next seven seasons. But A-Rod had an out in his previous contract that allowed him to become a free agent again in 2007 at the age of 32. If Jeter had a similar out clause, he probably would have signed another nine-figure deal. Instead, he's hitting free agency for the first time in his career as a 36-year-old with declining skills coming off of the worst season of his career. As Hal Steinbrenner has said on a couple of occasions this month, "I'm running a business here," and there's no reason he should feel obliged to give Jeter more than what the market dictates. A little bit more, in good faith? Sure. A lot more? No way, particularly if it hamstrings the team's flexibility elsewhere.
If the Yankees can bring Jeter back for a contract that is close to what the market would bear, then by all means they should do it. The offensive standard for shortstops is pretty low, and Jeter can still exceed it. Beyond that, the strikeout skills of the Yankees' pitching staff are such that his defensive shortcomings are minimized. And, of course, his savvy and experience and chase for 3,000 hits are nice bonuses.
But if they let him walk, his production could be replaced for a fraction of the price by a free agent such as Juan Uribe. Or the Yankees could take a chance on 23-year-old prospect Eduardo Nunez. He might be a disaster offensively, but Joe Girardi could hit him ninth, which would minimize the damage. One of the biggest problems with having Jeter on the roster is that Girardi might feel compelled to hit him leadoff again, and his poor 2010 production in that spot was a tourniquet to the Yankees' offense. If Jeter is gone, Girardi would be spared from having the "you need to hit ninth, not first" conversation with him, and optimize the lineup by getting speedy OBP fiend Brett Gardner up top, and Jeter's replacement at the bottom.
The great fear among the fans is that he might actually leave. And while some Yankees fans claim they can't imagine facing such a scenario, they actually dealt with one fairly recently. Back in 1995, a hobbled Don Mattingly was set to hit free agency in the twilight of his career. All season long there were murmurs that George Steinbrenner didn't want him back in 1996, and after the Yankees were knocked out of the playoffs, the big offseason question was whether Mattingly would return. To quote a William C. Rhoden story from the Nov. 18, 1995, edition of the New York Times -- 15 years ago today:
"Mattingly and the Yankees will eventually determine a course. The public posture is that the veteran first baseman will tell the Yankees whether he will return next season. The bottom line, however, is that the Yankees will tell Mattingly under what circumstances they will allow him to return."
There was once a time when it was impossible to imagine the Yankees without Mattingly. But then-GM Bob Watson knew that if he wanted to build on the team's first playoff appearance in 14 years, he needed an upgrade at first base after the 34-year-old first baseman slugged just .413. Mattingly hadn't even officially announced his retirement when the Yankees traded for Tino Martinez that December. It's hard to believe now because Martinez is a franchise icon in his own right, but he was the guy who displaced Donnie Baseball.
The Yankees were smart to play hardball with Mattingly 15 years ago, and they're wise to do it with Jeter this year. The Steinbrenners know that their fans quickly forgot about the cold treatment of Mattingly when they won the World Series in 1996, and winning will make fans forget about Jeter's absence, too. Make no mistake, the Yankees are a 90-win team with or without Jeter, and the fans will come out for a winner even if he isn't there.
Tricky negotiations with iconic players are nothing new. In fact, it happened across town even more recently. In 2005, the Mets could see that Mike Piazza was no longer an everyday catcher, and they let him leave as a free agent. Fans were disappointed, but they didn't miss Piazza all that much when the Mets won the NL East title in 2006. Heck, if the Edmonton Oilers can trade Wayne Gretzky in his prime, the Yankees can survive letting Derek Jeter walk away and play elsewhere at the end of his career.
Of course, there are some some counter-examples. The Yankees traded Babe Ruth in 1935, and boy did it set them back. They've won the World Series only 23 times since then.
Players come and go, teams remain. And if there is one that deserves the benefit of the doubt, it's the winningest franchise in baseball history. If letting Jeter walk is the best thing for the future of the Yankees, then that's what Cashman and the Steinbrenners should do.
Matt Meyers is an associate editor for ESPN The Magazine.