Would the Yankees have made the playoffs this season without Derek Jeter?
Let’s start with a disclaimer. The following words are by no means a judgment of the Yankees’ decision to keep Jeter on the roster in 2014. That wasn’t really a decision, and even if it were, there’s a justification for letting a legend have one last lap around the league. If you would rather not read about how bad Jeter has been this season, don’t click below to read more.
Derek Jeter is batting .255/.303/.304, 30 percent below league average according to wRC+. Even in a down year for offense, that slugging percentage is the worst in the American League among qualified hitters. Fangraphs doesn’t frown upon his defense as much as they have in recent years, docking him 1.3 runs for his efforts. Baseball Reference sees him as having been 10 runs below average this year, but gives half of that back in positional adjustment runs. All told, the two agree that he’s having a replacement-level season (-0.2 WAR per fangraphs, +0.1 per B-R).
There are worse players getting regular reps in the big leagues, even on contending teams. Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer have combined for -0.7 fWAR in key roles for Kansas City. Torii Hunter’s been right around replacement level for the Tigers. In theory, a readily-promotable AAA guy wouldn’t have offered any more production in the Bronx this year.
But is replacement level really relevant for the Yankees? Jeter made $12 million this season. Jhonny “sic” Peralta signed with St. Louis in the offseason at an average annual value of $13.25 million. Peralta’s been worth 5.3 or 5.8 WAR this season, depending on whom you believe.
Would adding Peralta in Jeter’s stead have guaranteed the Yankees another 5 or 6 wins this year? Of course not. WAR’s not that simple. But I’d guess it would have been worth at least that, because Peralta’s aura wouldn’t have pressured Joe Girardi into hitting him second all year, as Jeter’s did. He may have landed there anyway, as Peralta’s 124 wRC+ is better than any regular on the Yankees this season, but here’s a guess that early in the season, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Brian McCann would have moved up a spot, adding 5 to 15 PAs apiece. None of those guys was Mike Trout this year, but taking 30 or 40 PA away from Jeter and giving them to anyone with a pulse would have added some runs. It’s one thing to employ a replacement-level player; most teams do. It’s another thing altogether to give 600+ plate appearances in the heart of the order to a 40-year-old who’s hit worse than Billy Hamilton.
Five more wins would put the Yankees 81-64, still five games behind the Orioles, but just ahead of Oakland for the first Wild Card spot. Furthermore, had New York been 2 or 3 games better at the July trade deadline, they might have dealt in the David Price/Jeff Samardzija market, rather than the Brandon McCarthy/Chase Headley discount bin (though I’ll admit those acquisitions have paid off).
Acquiring Peralta is an extreme example, but Asdrubal Cabrera may have been available in trade. If the Yankees had signed him in March, Stephen Drew might have played more like the 3.5-win guy he was in 2013 than the no-bat, misused glove midseason acquisition he turned out to be. Neither of these guys would have guaranteed a playoff game in the Bronx, but they would have redistributed those wasted plate appearances and perhaps brought meaningful baseball in September.
Ok, enough Jeter bashing. Everyone ages and the few of us who are fit enough to play into their forties deserve to do what they love for the team they carried for decades.
Let’s talk about Mariano Rivera.
In Rivera’s farewell season in 2013, the Yankees’ bullpen had a 3.66 ERA, 20th in MLB. Their 3.91 FIP was 26th, as despite striking out a batter an inning all season, the relievers combined to surrender 1.21 homers per nine. In 2014, Dellin Betances stepped up with a prime-Rivera year. David Robertson (2.77 ERA/2.34 FIP) has approximated Rivera’s 2013 numbers (2.11 ERA/3.05 FIP), and the setup team of Shawn Kelley and Adam Warren has been solid. The relief crew has worked a 3.56 ERA, 15th in MLB, and a 3.51 FIP, which ranks 12th. The whole bullpen could be bought for less than the $10k the Yankees paid Rivera in 2013.
Basically, the Yankees lost nothing by exiling the best reliever ever, even after a reasonably productive final season.
Again, I’m not taking a shot at Rivera. Rather, I’m ruminating on the relative values of past greatness and youth on a baseball roster. Jeter and Rivera are probably two of the 100 best players ever to play the game and were central to a Yankee dynasty that won five championships and made the postseason every year from 1996 through 2007. During their farewell tours, they combined for 0.7 WAR over two seasons and their team would have been better off (or at least no worse) without them.
Let’s talk about David Ortiz.
At 38, Big Papi can still hit. His .263/.358/.511 line in 2014 is a far cry from his peak, but it’s 33% better than the league average and ranks fourth in the league among regular designated hitters. Ortiz’s presence in the middle of the lineup has been a fountain in an endless desert. His 32 home runs are almost a third of Boston’s 110, and his 99 RBI nearly match the totals of the next two guys on the team leaderboard (Mike Napoli has 55; Dustin Pedroia 53).
The future outlook, though, is a bit more complicated. Ortiz put up 5 straight .400 wOBA seasons in his prime, then struggled for two seasons (.372 and .342 in 2008 and 2009, respectively) before finding his swing again in 2010 and 2011 and raking at an elite level (.425 wOBA) in 2012. Since then, he’s aged as expected, dropping to .400 in 2013 and .367 in 2014. It would be foolish to assume that a 39-year-old Papi will bounce back next year, or even create a reasonable facsimile of 2014’s numbers.
You may have heard that the 2015 Red Sox have a few candidates vying for three outfield spots. Shane Victorino and Yoenis Cespedes each have one year left on their contracts. Jackie Bradley’s elite centerfield defense might be worth waiting for his bat. Mookie Betts is the future, whether in center, right, or on some other team’s infield. Brock Holt played well enough this year to warrant a look at some position in 2015. Rusney Castillo is on the way. Daniel Nava and Allen Craig struggled to various degrees in 2014, but were both great hitters in 2013 and could bounce back. Meanwhile, first baseman Mike Napoli has a degenerative hip condition that makes him look like a future DH for some team.
Doesn’t it seem like the Red Sox might be better off parting with Ortiz and using the DH spot the way other AL teams have, resting some outfield legs while keeping good bats in the lineup? An outfield of Cespedes, Castillo, Betts, and, Bradley, with the former two working in and out of the DH spot, is pretty appealing. Napoli could get a break from defense on occasion and Holt could fill a superutility role.
But it won’t happen. Ortiz is a Boston legend on par with Yaz and not far short of Ted Williams (maybe even ahead of the Splinter, given his postseason heroics). Red Sox fans are likely to watch a past-his-prime Papi continue to fade away in 2015, providing a big homer here and there, but probably costing the team a win or two while one of the aforementioned outfielders rots on the bench or succeeds on another roster. Maybe he’ll decide in 2015 that 2106 is his last year and the Red Sox will decide that he’s worth a Jeterian farewell tour, in which he’ll play below replacement level, but still bat in the middle of an otherwise-potent lineup.
The Angels have the best record in baseball this year. Their best player is 22 and their oldest key contributor is 34. The Orioles are running away with the AL East. Their best player (Adam Jones) is 29 and their oldest key contributor (Nelson Cruz) is 34. The Nationals have the best record in the National League behind 24-year-old Anthony Rendon and the Harper-Strasburg core they built through the draft. None of these teams is running out an over-the-hill superstar and feeling compelled to keep testing him in high-leverage situations. Other older players like Paul Konerko, Raul Ibanez, and Jason Giambi accepted reduced roles in what look like their final campaigns.
Aging is cruel. Smart baseball teams are avoiding long-term contracts and putting younger players in positions to put their skills to use while they’re still sharp. The Red Sox and Yankees are smart baseball teams, but sometimes superstars don’t give you a choice.
Maybe Jeter wanted to see the Royals in the playoffs before he retired.