Which slugger will reach 3,000 next?

Which slugger will be next to reach the 3,000 hit mark? Jon Paul Morosi Alex Rodriguez Pudge Rodriguez Omar Vizquel

Congratulations, Derek Jeter. Not only have you joined the 3,000 hit club, but you did so on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, with a home run, on a 3-2 pitch, thrown by Tampa Bay ace left-hander (David Price) who started last year’s All-Star Game.

Let it be said that Jeter, five-time world champion and certain Hall of Famer, continues to win at life.

Now, as we emerge from our historical hangover, let’s ask the most American of questions.

Who’s next?

As with 300 victories for a pitcher, it can be fashionable to declare that each new club member will be the last. But that’s not a valid statement here.

Sure, it’s becoming harder to get 3,000 hits. As Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton pointed out in an interview last month, the specialization of bullpens and overall shortening of career lengths could make Club 3K even more exclusive than it’s been in the past.

But I can just about guarantee that Jeter will be teaching the secret handshake to someone else within the next several years.

The safest pick is Alex Rodriguez, Jeter’s New York teammate and occasional foil. As long as A-Rod remains healthy, he has a chance to reach 3,000 by the end of next season — he's at 2,762 as of Sunday. But that’s not necessarily a safe assumption — as The Other Story out of New York this weekend would suggest.

Rodriguez, 35, has been diagnosed with a slight tear in the cartilage of his right knee and the injury could require surgery. If A-Rod opts to have that procedure during the season, his milestone likely will be pushed back to sometime in 2013.

More than anything, that underscores the inherent difficulty in reaching 3,000 hits. With this benchmark, the watchwords are “consistent brilliance” and “excellent health.”

Jeter, 37, didn’t become an everyday player until the season in which he turned 22. A-Rod, by comparison, was the Mariners’ shortstop during the year of his 21st birthday. And yet it appears that Rodriguez might take longer than Jeter to reach 3,000.

Jeter has generally batted higher in the order than Rodriguez, which certainly helped. But so did the fact that he has stayed on the field. Even though Jeter is older than Rodriguez, A-Rod’s had fewer trips to the disabled list during the time in which the duo has been New York teammates. If you wish to ascribe that to the fact that A-Rod has a steroid past and Jeter does not, I’d have a hard time arguing with you.

A-Rod’s PED transgressions aside, there is every reason to believe he will reach 3,000 hits. Jeter, in fact, told me last week that he fully expects A-Rod to hit the mark. It’s just that A-Rod may do so as a DH. Rodriguez is under contract with the Yankees for six more seasons. He will turn 42 during the final year of his deal. And for all the talk about Jeter’s decline at age 37, how will A-Rod look when he’s five years older?

OK, enough about A-Rod for now. There are actually two active players ahead of him on the career hits list: Pudge Rodriguez at 2,842 and Omar Vizquel at 2,831. But they are (probably) closer to retirement than A-Rod. For each player, the question is whether his bat can scatter enough singles before senescence strikes him out for good.

Over the last three seasons — ages 36, 37 and 38 — Pudge averaged better than 100 hits per year. At that rate, he was on track to hit 3,000 by the end of next year. But his pace has slowed considerably in 2011. He has just 25 hits, has fallen into a backup role with the Washington Nationals, and is now on the disabled list with a right oblique strain.

Barring a second-half revival, Rodriguez will be viewed as a backup catcher when he hits free agency. If he’s only going to start 50 games per season, he may need to stick around the big leagues until he’s 42 or even 43 in order to get 3,000 hits. But that’s not entirely out of the question. The original “Pudge” — Carlton Fisk — played his last major-league game at 45.

“He’ll get there,” Jeter said of Rodriguez.

Speaking of playing into your mid-40s, Vizquel turned 44 earlier this year. Remarkably, he’s hitting .269 in a reserve role with the Chicago White Sox. Lately, Vizquel has been starting only about twice each week. He, too, would need to stay in the big leagues for another two to three seasons if he wants to reach the 3,000-hit plateau.

And here’s the stunner: Some in the game believe he can do it.

“The way his body is, he could play until he’s 47, 48 if he wanted to,” Shelton said. “The things he does now, it’s amazing. He’ll get (to 3,000). I’m 40 years old. He’s 44. He’s a freak of nature.”

“He’d need to play probably three or four years, because he’s not playing every day,” said Sandy Alomar Jr., Vizquel’s longtime Cleveland teammate. “It all depends on his body. If he’s healthy, and somebody gives him a contract, he’ll do it. Omar loves baseball. He’s going to play until someone takes the jersey off his back. The guy is in phenomenal shape.”

Johnny Damon, who on Saturday led his Rays teammates out of the dugout to applaud Jeter’s achievement, is another player to watch. He’s fifth on the active list, only 99 hits behind A-Rod.

Damon is already 37 but has successfully transitioned into the DH role, which could keep him in the American League for a few more years. He’s motivated to continue playing, because he knows that the 3,000-hit mark would be a boon to his Hall of Fame credentials. And teams will likely continue valuing Damon’s left-handed bat and upbeat clubhouse presence.

“If we do the calculations right, probably 2013 it’ll be on the radar — hopefully not 2014,” Damon said last month, when asked about his 3,000-hit timeline. “The DH situation definitely prolongs your career. I wish I could go out and play defense like I did three years ago, but Father Time starts wearing you down. That’s part of the game. Hopefully I continue to be a decent hitter so I can put on the uniform.”

My prediction: A-Rod will be the next to reach the milestone, but he won’t get 3K until ’13 (matching his uniform number).

So, the secretary of the 3,000 hit club should feel free to make a new copy of the membership masthead, with Jeter’s name placed right below Craig Biggio. It’s going to change again, of course. Just not anytime soon.

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