As a diehard Yankees fan, I have watched with keen interest the dance of free agency currently taking place between the team and its two highest profile free agents, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. While the Rivera negotiations have been low key and quiet, the Jeter talks have been contentious and splashed all over the sports pages.
The perceived acrimony involved in the Jeter situation has led some pundits to debate whether or not Jeter might actually bolt the team. If the captain fled via free agency, why not the closer as well? Would either Jeter or Rivera be a good free agent signing for the Mets?
Let’s start with Rivera since his situation is more clear-cut. Unlike Jeter, Rivera has significant leverage in any salary negotiation as he just completed another superb season. The only negative on Mo’s ledger is the fact that he just turned 41 and eventually Father Time will catch up with his ability. The fact that Rivera is coming off such a good season will make it nearly impossible for the Mets to steal him away from the Yankees.
The Mets are on the hook for $11.5 million to Frankie Rodriguez next season and not even Penn& Teller could pull off the required magic to trade him at this point. Also, if Rivera were serious about leaving the Yankees, he would certainly have multiple teams interested in his services. The bidding would quickly escalate out of the reach of the cost conscious Mets.
This brings us to the Yankee captain. Jeter has found himself in a most unusual position this off-season. His entire career, Jeter has been the Golden Boy in the eyes of the New York media and the overwhelming majority of the Yankee faithful. During the course of the current negotiation, Jeter’s image has been tarnished for the first time. Most fans feel that the Yankees offer of $45 million over three years is fair considering Jeter’s age and his career worst on-field performance this season.
Rumors of Jeter demanding a five or six year deal at $24 million per have further sullied the captain’s reputation as a team first player. As I write this, MLB network is broadcasting that the Yankees have upped their three year deal to $16-$17 million per year. This would bring the annual value of the contract in line to that of Troy Tulowitzki’s recently signed extension with Colorado. I doubt the Yankees will go any higher dollar-wise although I could see them agreeing to a fourth year or at least a vesting option for a fourth year.
Let’s suppose that Jeter is adamant about not taking a pay cut to re-sign with the Yankees, would the Mets be able to lure him to Citi Field? I think the only two possible landing spots for Jeter if he chose to leave are the Mets and Boston. The Dodgers would have been another potential spot if Joe Torre had not retired as their manager. The biggest impediment to Jeter signing with either the Mets or Red Sox is that both of those teams have younger shortstops under contract for 2011. The Mets picked up a rather hefty option on Jose Reyes while Boston has Marco Scutaro signed for the relatively bargain basement sum of $5 million dollars.
If Jeter leaves the Bronx, it would be necessary for him to accept significantly less money than the Yankees have already offered him. I doubt his ego would withstand being forced to change positions, too. The only scenario I could envision Jeter accepting is a one-year, incentive-laden deal. He would use that year to attempt to fashion a monster statistical season like the one he had in 2009 and then he would test the free agent waters again next off-season. That goal would be hard enough to accomplish without the added pressure of having to learn a new position as well.
If the Mets were willing to trade Reyes or move him to another position for one year Jeter would certainly bring value to the Mets. In the aftermath of the Yankees failure to make the postseason in 2008, the din of complaining about Jeter’s defensive abilities increased dramatically. It was openly speculated that he would be forced to move to the outfield before his contract expired after the 2010 season. Joe Girardi even moved Jeter into the leadoff spot in the order in 2009 for the sole purpose of cutting down on the number of double plays he could hit into.
Jeter used all of that as motivation. He hired a new personal trainer and spent the off-season focusing on his defense. The result was a spectacular 2009 season. I think Jeter has felt a similar sting with the way these negotiations have gone and he would be very motivated to prove the Yankees wrong in 2011. The question for the Mets to ponder would be: Do they feel Jose Reyes is through as a shortstop? You wouldn’t trade him or move his defensive position for what would likely be a one-year rental of Jeter.
Ultimately, I think Jeter and the Yankees both know that they need each other and somehow a deal will be struck. If they don’t, the Mets need to think how much they are willing to spend for the publicity stunt of stealing the Yankee captain. It would make for great theater and it would sell an awful lot of papers in New York.