When a 34 year old player has a down year, regardless of how skilled they are, it's tough not to interpret that as a sign of an imminent decline. As the years of an athlete's career add up, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they will rebound from a sub par campaign; even a player as good as Jeter was up until that point has to see their skills erode eventually. Foretelling his impending demise was the obvious conclusion to come to, but luckily, what seems obvious isn't always right.
At a point in his career when player's defensive abilities are only supposed to deteriorate, Jeter posted his best and only significantly positive UZR rating since 2002, which is as far back as the data goes. It might have been the finest season as a fielder of his career. Partly due to an offseason conditioning program that was designed to increase his lateral range and partly because of Mick Kelleher's assistance with Jeter's positioning, the Captain enjoyed a late career defensive renaissance that is all but unheard of in baseball.
Joe Girardi's decision to bat Jeter lead-off coincided with a resurgent offensive year as well. Jeter increased his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage by 34, 44 and 57 points, respectively. He hit 18 home runs, his highest total in 5 years. Granted he hit 11 of those over the short porch in right field at the New Yankee Stadium, but we can't really hold that against him since he'll be playing the same amount of regular season games there in 2010 as he did in 2009.
If we learn any lesson from Jeter's rebound in 2009, it should be that trying to divine a player's career trajectory on a season by season basis as they age is a fool's errand. Jeter's status as a historical outlier makes predicting what the future holds even more unreliable. So just as 2008 didn't foreshadow an imminent demise, nor does 2009 promise a run at Pete Rose's record.
While it's true that few shortstops have ever maintained above average offensive production while playing shortstop in the mid-to-late 30's, it's also true that Jeter is fairly like to do so considering that he was historically elite at age 35. But at the same time, Jeter's closest comparable according to Baseball-Reference, Barry Larkin, had a bad year when he was 35, bounced back when he was 36 and was essentially washed up by age 37.
What happens this year will have tremendous implications on Jeter's impending contract negotiations as well. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times wondered if Jeter will aim for a contract that takes him through his age 42 season like the one the Yankees gave to Alex Rodriguez. Even if Jeter continues to produce at an excellent level, a six year deal seems ridiculous and unnecessary and it would be uncharacteristically petty and selfish of Jeter to make such demands.
If the Yankees are serious about having a budget going forward, they can't afford to commit huge amounts of money to Jeter over the long term, regardless of what they are paying Rodriguez. They should be more concerned with what other teams might be willing to give Jeter. Contracts signed in the past are sunk costs and although there are personalities and egos involved, the bottom line is that money spent on Jeter is money that can't be spent on talent to surround him.
Additionally, the market for aging free agents is changing and Brain Cashman seems well aware of that fact:
The industry the last two free agent markets seems to be going downward and the player's ages are going upward. It makes more sense to be patient. My attitude is if this is the place you want to be, you will make it happen. Johnny Damon professed his love for the Yankees, wanted to be here and was given every chance to be here. He's not here anymore and I don't feel that is the Yankees' fault. They have to reconcile why they are not here, not me.The comment was aimed at Johnny Damon (and by extension, Scott Boras) but I think it tells you something about the tack he will take with Jeter. Cashman understands the free agent market as well as anyone and although the Yanks might give Jeter more than he's worth on the field, it won't be by much.
The media will surely take Jeter's side regardless of how much he wants from the Yankees but the reality is that he has the power to make the negotiations easy or make them difficult. Ask for 6 year deal and a raise in terms of annual value and it will get ugly. Take 3 years at $20M, the deal is done overnight and the Yanks have more money to use towards building a team that can win World Series, which has always been Jeter's singular focus. But let's not put the cart ahead of the horse. There will be plenty of time to watch this topic get senselessly beaten into the ground over the course of the season.
We've been incredibly lucky to watch Jeter's career unfold and we've been even luckier to watch him continue his excellent production into his mid-30's. Let's hope he goes the way of Honus Wagner or Luke Appling and plays shortstop into his 40's, but even if he doesn't, the Yanks have had their best stretch at the shortstop position in the history of the franchise and one of the very best in baseball. Although it will hurt terribly when Jeter is gone, the Yankees are essentially playing with house money at this point. With any luck, though, we'll be able to see this image a few more times before he goes.