In 1995 the New York Yankees debuted three players that would become the core of baseball’s next great dynasty. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera led the Yankees to four World Series titles between 1996 and 2000, and were contributors to another title in 2009. But if there is anything baseball fans have learned in the first month-and-a-half of this season, it is that for at least two of these icons, their time on top may be coming to an end.
Jeter, 37, and Posada, 39, have shown clear evidence that their best years are behind them. Jeter is currently hitting 60 points below his career batting average of .313, and is similarly lacking in categories like on-base and slugging percentage.
Things have only been worse for Posada, whose paltry .165 average is the lowest among any major leaguer eligible for the batting title. This is definitely not what a team wants out of their designated hitter (Posada lost his starting job at catcher this past spring).
Furthermore the struggles of these Yankee greats have been exacerbated by conflicts off the field. Jeter and Yankee management were heavily criticized for the heated contract negotiations that took place in the spring. Ironically, the core issue of the conversations was the possible decline in Jeter’s play. In retrospect the owners may have had a valid point.
Posada has also had very public clashes with management. Just last weekend a frustrated Posada took himself out of the lineup due to an apparent “sore back,” but most around the game believe it was because he listed as last in the batting order.
This kind of diva behavior is shocking and unprecedented for a pair of players known for their dedication and love for the game. And worse, the Yankees will pay Jeter and Posada a combined $27.8 million.
Though it is a problem they have dealt with in the past, the contract situations of Jeter and Posada reflect the potential downside to the Yankees’ inflated bankroll. CC Sabathia is currently one of the best pitchers in baseball, but what about four years from now when CC is 34 and the Yankees are still paying him $23 million a year? Sure, Mark Teixeira is solid switch hitting power hitter right now, but what happens when he’s making $22.5 million at the age of 36 and can’t catch up to a fastball to save his life? And of course, what do they do with an injury-plagued 41-year-old Alex Rodriguez that makes $20 million?
The answers have tended to be that New York will dump each of these players as their play starts to decline, then overpay for the next generation of free agents. It may not be the most honorable outcome, but it seems to be the one the Yankees execute.
But unlike the aforementioned all-stars, Posada and Jeter have played their entire careers with the team, adding the influence of fan sympathy into the equation. On the night following the lineup incident, ESPN cameras caught fans chanting “JORGE! JORGE! JORGE!” in support of their long time hero. Can the Yankees afford to just cut them from the franchise? Only the Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman know. Until then, Red Sox and Rays fans will pray Jeter and Posada continue to struggle.