Saturday shows Jeter is far from finished

Now comes the tough part for Derek Jeter.

Maybe.

The prevailing assumption among some in the New York Yankees’ universe was that once Jeter reached 3,000 hits, the team would be liberated to drop him from the leadoff spot and deconstruct him in any other way necessary.

Jeter might be the one who is liberated instead.

The pressure of 3,000? Gone. The negativity surrounding his decline? Still there, but not with the same edge. Jeter’s remarkable 5-for-5 game Saturday changed the conversation entirely.

Let the next honeymoon begin, and let it go beyond Jeter’s next 0-for-12. Yes, Jeter looked like an old 37 for most of the first half, rarely hitting the ball hard, rarely producing extra-base hits. But after Saturday, a reassessment is in order. Or, at the very least, a deep breath.

Johnny Damon once jokingly reminded reporters of his status as a player by referring to himself as “Johnny (Bleepin’) Damon.” Jeter, ever the portrait of dignity, would never refer to himself that way publicly. But you had better believe that he views himself as “Derek (Bleepin’) Jeter.”

Saturday was only one game, about as small a sample size as it gets. But the bottom line – the point that Jeter probably wants to shout to the world – is that such performances are still within his grasp.

Not every day, of course. Maybe not again this season. But Jeter, a player who built his legend through unwavering self-confidence, proved to everyone, most of all himself, that he isn’t finished yet.

He had only 12 extra-base hits in his first 267 at-bats; he followed that with five in his next 17. His offensive numbers are still well below his career norms. But Jeter wasn’t the only star player to endure a first-half slump – Dan Uggla, Adam Dunn, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Albert Pujols all had ’em.

The difference, of course, is that Jeter also is coming off a career-worst season. But considering his age, everyone just needs to deal with it – fans, media and yes, even frustrated Yankees officials. A diminished Jeter is the new normal, but he’s still not a player to be confused with Yuniesky Betancourt, OK?

The Yankees signed Jeter to a three-year, $51 million free-agent contract partly to reap the windfall from his 3,000th hit, but mostly because it was unthinkable that “The Captain” would ever wear another uniform, warts and all.

No question, the team will navigate one difficult Jeter minefield after another through the course of the agreement. But the $143 million that third baseman Alex Rodriguez is owed from 2012 to ’17 ultimately will make Jeter’s deal look as harmless as a minor league contract.

That isn’t to say Jeter should hit leadoff or play shortstop in perpetuity. Difficult as it is for them to accept, even the great ones come with expiration dates.

A month from now, Jeter might be back to his out-making ways, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi might determine that the team is better off reviving the Brett Gardner/Nick Swisher platoon in the leadoff spot and dropping Jeter to the lower part of the order. If the move clearly is best for the team and Jeter fights it, then shame on him.

The eventual move of Jeter away from shortstop will be even more difficult, in part because there is no obvious place to put him. Jeter is not even an average defender at short, according to advanced metrics. But the number of mistakes that rookie Eduardo Nunez made during Jeter’s stint on the DL actually reinforced Jeter’s value as a defender.

You would still want the ball hit to Jeter with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. His critics might counter that you wouldn’t want the ball hit to his left or right. But there is a value in steadiness, a value that no advanced metric can measure.

Baseball, like life, goes in cycles. Older stars routinely reach an awkward point in their careers when they no longer can perform at their previous levels. It’s happening now to Jeter. It happened to Cal Ripken 15 years ago, and Jeter was one of the players who made him look old.

Broadcaster Joe Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman, criticized Ripken’s defensive play during the 1996 American League Championship Series between the Orioles and Yankees. I called Ripken after the series was over, seeking his side of the story. Ripken explained that one of the plays was especially difficult; he was trying to throw out Jeter. And Jeter, then a rookie, was the fastest runner in the game from the right side.

That is the Jeter so many of us remember. The current Jeter – an older, slower, less explosive Jeter – is difficult for many of us to accept.

Ripken was stubborn toward the end, exasperating some Orioles officials with his reluctance to move to third base and end his consecutive-games streak. Jeter no doubt has his own stubborn streak; that’s how he became Jeter, that’s how all the great ones evolve. But heaven knows, the Yankees knew that when they re-signed him. It’s not as if he just showed up at their door.

Saturday was magical, even by Jeter’s lofty standards. For all anyone knows, it will all be downhill from here, but let’s not repeat the mistake of rushing to judgment, not when Jeter still is capable of being Jeter.

Indeed, why not look at it like “The Captain” does?

His next game is the first game of the rest of his career.