Last legs of Jeter's trek to 3,000 bittersweet
In a more nearly perfect Yankees world, Derek Jeter would have soared past 3,000 hits, hitting .320, consistently hitting line drives to gaps, leading his team with the force of his play.
In this world, Jeter still reached 3,000 hits, and 3,000 hits remains one of baseball's indisputable landmarks of greatness. But the last legs of Jeter's journey to this lofty point have had a bittersweet quality.
Nothing that happens from today forward can ever diminish Derek Jeter's greatness, or the quality and quantity of his contributions to the New York Yankees. The five World Series championships earned by Yankee teams on which Jeter was a primary contributor supply all of the evidence that is needed on behalf of his worth. He is the Captain. He is a winner. He is the consummate Yankee.
But he is also, at the moment, a baseball player with declining skills. There is irony, and not the kind that brings a smile to anybody's facial features, in this situation. As Jeter reaches the 3,000-hit level, this line of demarcation for hitting greatness, his current skills are not the skills that allowed him to attain this historic production in the first place.
It is often said that no one can dispute Jeter's value, except that his value was disputed over the winter, in some publicly contentious negotiations over a new contract. Jeter was taking the position that he was a superstar who was merely coming off a substandard season. The Yankees were taking the position that he was a player nearing 37 years of age, who had lost range at shortstop and who was showing signs of declining skills at the plate as well, with 2010 being the worst season of his career.
The Yankees had to re-sign Jeter, as long as he still had a pulse, because of what he means to the team, the franchise, the whole notion of being a Yankee. But the club's view of his career turns out to be correct, based on the first half of the 2011 season.
Jeter's offensive numbers have declined even from their 2010 levels. His defense is the subject of continuing debate. He was selected as the 2010 American League Gold Glove winner at short -- the fifth such award of his career. But some of the advanced defensive metrics rate him among the worst shortstops in the game. Perhaps defense, like beauty, can best be measured in the eye of the beholder.
And so, the unthinkable is being thought about Jeter. Perhaps he should be dropped in the batting order. Perhaps he should be much closer to the bottom of the order than the top. Perhaps he should be moved to a less demanding defensive position. Not that long ago this sort of thing concerning as iconic a Yankees personage as Jeter would have been sacrilege. Now it is a day at the office.
Again, none of this diminishes in any way the essential contributions Jeter has made to the Yankees, and to baseball, for that matter, as an individual and as the consummate teammate. But all of it also served as the backdrop for the current phase of his career as he attained the high plateau of 3,000 hits.
On the plus side, Jeter is still playing for the same team and that same team is the Yankees. Whatever he contributes is contributed toward the goal of the franchise's 28th World Series championship. In this era of increased parity, this is not a flawless baseball team, because there are no flawless baseball teams, not even the Yankees. But it is solidly in the hunt for the postseason, which is where Derek Jeter should be, must be, still is.
He was going to be a Hall of Famer well before he reached 3,000 hits. But now there is one more statistical stamp of approval on his career. The last two seasons have not been glorious processions for him. But this subtracts nothing from the accomplishments of his career and serves to prove only that Derek Jeter is human.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.