Yankees handling Jeter just fine

Derek Jeter will slump again this season.

How do I know this? Well, he is a big-league hitter, and big-league hitters slump. It usually happens several times each year. The game is difficult, the season is long, and the pitchers make a lot of money, too.

And when that happens, when Jeter rolls to shortstop four times in a June loss to the Indians, please remember what happened this Mother’s Day: Jeter hit two home runs and went 4 for 6 in the New York Yankees’ series-clinching win over the Texas Rangers.

Good thing the Yankees didn’t move him down in the order, as so many fans and observers suggested in recent weeks.

The essence of the issue is this: Jeter, at 36, is not what he used to be. But he’s not finished, either. He’s hitting a respectable .276. And as long as he helps his team win — the Yankees are tied for first place, after all — then he should remain right where he is, leading off and playing shortstop and emanating cool.

If Jeter is hitting .220 in July, with the Yankees mired in third, then the calculus changes.

Short of that, he stays.

I understand why many Yankees fans were frustrated with their captain’s play until, oh, sometime during Sunday’s power display in Arlington. But some of our friends in New York might be stunned to learn that fans in other cities have watched mystifying starts by their star players in 2011.

Look around the majors: Dustin Pedroia and Carl Crawford in Boston; Justin Morneau in Minnesota; Carlos Gonzalez in Colorado; Adam Dunn in Chicago; Dan Uggla in Atlanta; Vladimir Guerrero in Baltimore; Elvis Andrus in Texas; Shin-Soo Choo in Cleveland.

Every player mentioned in that paragraph has a lower OPS than Derek Jeter.

In fact, Jeter has been more productive this season than teammates Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada.

Where are the earsplitting cries for them to be benched?

To be fair, Jeter brought some of this scrutiny on himself. Contentious contract talks with the Yankees last offseason revealed Jeter’s overheated sense of his present value. In the end, Jeter received a deal far in excess of what the statistics and projections said he deserved: three years, $51 million, with a player option that should take the guarantee to $56 million through 2014.

Jeter was only slightly better in 2010 than shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who is eight years younger. Peralta received a two-year, $11.25 million deal from the Detroit Tigers. Obviously, Jeter is being paid for what he has done, as opposed to what he is going to do. If that sounds like an irrational way to do business, it is. But Jeter is on the verge of collecting his 3,000th hit, and the Yankees, as you may have heard, are into that sort of thing.

Whatever the motivations — on either side — the parties struck a deal. They agreed to continue their relationship for three (maybe four) years. And that will have an effect on how manager Joe Girardi handles Jeter in his lineup this year . . . and next year . . . and the year after that. A player’s contract and reputation influence his place in the lineup, sometimes more than his production. If you have a problem with that, I invite you to watch the local PONY Baseball League.

Put yourself in Girardi’s position: You are under contract to manage the Yankees through 2013. You are expected to win the World Series every year. You must wring out the optimal production from a cast of famous, wealthy, and aging players. You don’t have another proven shortstop on the current roster. Unless Jeter decides to walk away from some of that $51 million, you must manage him effectively for three years. At least.

So, would it have been realistic — at all — for Girardi to move Jeter down in the lineup, four weeks into a three-year contract? That’s like signing a long-term lease with your neatnik roommate, then deciding your new life’s ambition is to end up on “Hoarders.”

For now, at least, any statistical benefit from dropping Jeter in the lineup wouldn’t be worth the risk of injuring the shortstop’s pride, heaping pressure on his replacement, and possibly threatening clubhouse harmony.

Girardi alluded to this delicate dynamic a few days ago, saying, “In everything I do, I consider people’s feelings. How’s it going to affect them mentally? It’s always easy to say, ‘Do this.’ But I have to look that player in the face every day. I have to try to get the most out of that player — not just for two days, but for 162 games. These are all things I have to consider.”

What if Jeter plunges into another prolonged slump this week? What if he looks listless at the plate and the masses clamor for change once more? Then the alternative is Eduardo Núñez, a promising rookie who is exactly that — a promising rookie.

Núñez, 23, is batting .357 as a reserve this season. That’s impressive. But he’s made four errors in his two starts at shortstop. Jeter, who doesn’t have great range, still makes the routine plays.

Girardi and Alex Rodriguez offered strong endorsements of Núñez’s potential after his most recent start, on Thursday in Detroit. Girardi talked about how much the Yankees believe in “this kid.” Rodriguez called him a “great young player.”

Perhaps unwittingly, their choice of words drew attention to just how young Núñez is. It made me wonder: How could the next Yankees shortstop — whoever it is — possibly handle pressure as well as Jeter has, every day, for 16 seasons? We can’t measure the precise impact Jeter has had on his teammates, by absorbing the attention and questions while they go about their work. But rest assured: It has been significant.

And let’s not overlook an obvious consideration: The Yankees won 95 games despite Jeter’s disappointing 2010 season, and there’s a decent chance that he will perform at least that well this year. David Ortiz looked finished at times in 2009 and 2010. Now look at him. The best players in the world have a way of surprising laypeople in the stands.

Dick Groch, the scout who signed Jeter as the Yankees’ first-round pick 19 years ago, covered the Yankees’ series in Detroit last week. Groch now works as a special assistant to Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, in the areas of pro scouting and player personnel.

Groch arrived to Comerica Park early and observed batting practice, as the good scouts do. And he watched Jeter — two decades removed from his days as a high school star in Kalamazoo, Mich. — swat a number of pitches over the wall. At that point, Jeter had yet to hit a home run during game action. But Groch liked what he saw.

Groch assured me then that Jeter hadn’t lost his power.

“There is more to come,” Groch said.

On Sunday, Jeter proved Groch right — and not for the first time in his scouting career.

Jeter won’t be the Yankees’ shortstop, leadoff man and captain forever. But for now, he still belongs.

Every Monday morning this season, we examine a pressing baseball issue in our FOXSports.com baseball column Behind the Seams.

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