Will Derek Jeter Be Good Again?

For the fourth time this season, Derek Jeter has been sidelined. There is no timetable for his return, and unless the Yankees reach the postseason — and there is still hope on that front — there is a decent chance that he will make no meaningful contribution to the team at all this season. Even with the expectation that he would miss time this season, it seemed likely that he would contribute at some point, so this comes as a bit of a surprise, even at this late date. The question is then, just how much should the Yankees expect him to contribute next season?

To be certain, Derek Jeter is one of the greatest players of all-time. This is not news. In the annals of shortstop-dom, there are only five men who have accumulated more WAR than has Jeter — Honus Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, George Davis and Bill Dahlen. And since all five of them played at least 200 games at third base, you could make the argument that Jeter — who has never played any other defensive position — is the best true shortstop ever. Certainly not the best fielding shortstop, but the best overall. But even if his ankle heals properly, which it apparently has not yet done, he may be done contributing at the big league level.

Since 1901, there have been just 15 instances in which a player age 40 or older has played more than 50% of his games at shortstop. Of those 15, one was Jimmy Austin in 1921, and we’ll go ahead and throw that out the window because he only racked up 75 plate appearances that season and he wasn’t primarily a shortstop during his career, but rather a third baseman. Three of the other 15 seasons fly out the window too. In 1914 and ’15, Bobby Wallace — who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1953 by the Veteran’s Committee — played a grand total of 35 games, good for 100 PA on the nose. Dahlen didn’t even make it that far in 1911, as he played in just one game in his age-41 season — his final season to be precise.

This leaves us with just five players and 11 seasons of age-40 or better shortstops:

Player Year Age G PA BA OBP SLG wRC+ Fld Bsr WAR
Barry Larkin 2004 40 111 386 0.289 0.352 0.419 91 -2.2 3.5 1.8
Honus Wagner 1914 40 150 616 0.252 0.317 0.317 92 9.0 2.7 3.5
Honus Wagner 1915 41 156 625 0.274 0.325 0.422 125 5.0 -1.3 5.5
Honus Wagner 1916 42 123 485 0.287 0.35 0.37 122 -7.0 0.6 3.0
Luke Appling 1947 40 139 573 0.306 0.386 0.412 126 0.0 -0.9 4.4
Luke Appling 1949 42 142 619 0.301 0.439 0.394 130 2.0 -3.8 5.2
Luke Appling 1950 43 50 144 0.234 0.3 0.32 60 1.0 0.4 -0.1
Omar Vizquel 2007 40 145 575 0.246 0.305 0.316 60 23.9 2.8 2.2
Omar Vizquel 2008 41 92 300 0.222 0.283 0.267 37 3.0 -1.5 -0.9
Ozzie Smith 1995 40 44 182 0.199 0.282 0.244 46 0.0 -0.6 -0.5
Ozzie Smith 1996 41 82 261 0.282 0.358 0.37 99 4.0 -0.9 1.3

Four of these players are members of the Hall of Fame, and the candicacy of the fifth (Vizquel) is likely to inspire quite the argument. The final seasons for Appling, Larkin and Smith are included here. The final seasons for Wagner and Vizquel are not here because they did not spend the majority of their time at shortstop in those seasons. In fact, Vizquel, as you may know, played an additional four seasons before retiring. One thing is for certain, looking at the list — the final year is tough. Of the seasons in this sample, the best final season was Larkin’s 1.8 WAR. Wagner’s final season, 1917, consisted of 74 games played and a 0.2 WAR. For Vizquel, just last year at 45, he compiled -0.7 WAR in 60 games. In fact, in those final four seasons, he accumulated -0.5 WAR in 288 games, so it wasn’t as though his final shortstop season was some sort of fluke.

To me, the sharp drops from Appling and Wagner are the most troubling. Statistically anyway, they seem the most parallel to Jeter. Of course, theirs came a couple of years later age-wise, so it isn’t a perfect comparison. Let’s take a look at it visually:

Jeter WAR

We can see here that every player did eventually have a sharp decline. Larkin came first, though he would be the only one to pick it back up ever so slightly and finish on a “high” note. Appling and Wagner retired right after their big drop, which was a lesson that Vizquel was unable to learn. Smith’s last gasp was admirable — a 99 wRC+, still a plus fielder, but he wasn’t a full-time player. In fact, none of them were full-time players even in their final seasons. Larkin’s 111 games played stands out as the high. And that sort of begs the question, how many players were able to man shortstop the majority of the time at 39 but not in any subsequent seasons? There are 13 such players, including Jeter. So, not a lot of company there either. And of the 13, only Luis Aparicio, Bones Ely and Rabbit Maranville topped 300 PA. Craig Counsell was a fourth with over 100 games played, but he only racked up 230 PA. This should be instructive for the Yankees as they push forward into 2014.

It would be nice and clean for New York to caddy Jeter — assuming that he needs a caddy, which again, history would suggest that he will — with one of the existing internal options, but those internal options are horrifying. Five other men have manned shortstop for New York this season, and of them, only two have survived — Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez. Nix, now in his sixth year and with his fifth different major league team, has had perhaps the best and almost certainly his last opportunity to receive meaningful playing time at the big league level. Unfortunately, he has neither played well nor has he been able to stay on the field. This is the opposite combination to what would have been preferable. Much of the same is true for Nunez, the only difference being he is still on his first team, and only in his fourth season. That may need to change come the winter, as for his career he has now posted -2.0 WAR. You always hate to give up on a player too early, but I think it’s safe to say at this point that Nunez is who we thought he’d be.

So, it stands to reason that if the Yankees don’t think Jeter can return to playing full-time next season that they will have to look externally. None of the middle infielders who made the Yankees’ top 15 prospects list this season — Angelo Gumbs and David Adams — are shortstops, and the team didn’t draft a shortstop this year with any of its first five picks (they took high-school product Tyler Wade at the end of the fourth round). But do they go all out and get someone who is capable of starting every day, or do they look for a defensive replacement only, someone who can spot start if necessary but is better suited to entering in the eighth inning each night. Interestingly, both options are available.

On the play every day side, we have Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta. One would assume the Tigers would be interesting in retaining Peralta’s services, but then they also now have Jose Iglesias, and he’s young, so they might let him run wild and free and see what happens. The Red Sox may also be interested in retaining Drew, though it’s a matter of debate whether making him a qualifying offer is the best idea in the world. There are no shortage of options on the defense-first side, including Clint Barmes, John McDonald and Brendan Ryan. Of course, if this is the route they go, they may just hang on to Nix, though his positive fielding numbers come at second base and the outfield, and not the left side of the infield.

It seems then that the important question heading into the offseason is just how much Jeter can play in 2014. Obviously we don’t know, but it is something that the team will have to plan for in a much more concrete way than they did this season. Whether or not he exercises his $9.5 million option or chooses to become a free agent, it seems very likely that he will be in pinstripes next year. It would never be wise to dismiss Jeter, but doubt is welcome at this stage, and the tenor of his contributions in 2014 should be up for debate — not just because of how he has played this season, but because of those who played shortstop at his age before him as well.

I have been working under the assumption all season that this season would be Mariano Rivera’s send-off, and 2014 would be Jeter’s. After all, if Mo gets a season-long serenade, it only seems right that Jeter would receive the same treatment since he was, you know, better and stuff. But assuming Jeter does indeed to come back for one final season (or even more, I suppose), he will need to buck the odds to avoid having his send-off resemble the sad final chapters of many of his shortstop peers.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.