Plenty of ink has been spilled over Derek Jeter's poor performance since the beginning of last season. It's clear now that his days as an elite player are most likely over, leaving fans and management with an exceptional highlight reel, lots of great memories, and, unfortunately, a slowly-meandering, awkward transition into the future.
Most of the reaction from fans and media thus far has either been to state the obvious - "boy, he sure is hitting a lot of weak grounders" - or to suggest the impossible - "the Yankees better find themselves a new shortstop before (fill in the blank)". Unless they're talking about finding a new shortstop for 2014, neither represents an actionable plan going forward.
Considering both the emotional and empirical issues at hand, the Yankees brass needs to begin developing some way to handle Jeter's gradual transition from being an everyday player to joining the pantheon of Yankee immortals. Here are the key issues they should consider:
1.) Jeter should stay in the lineup on a (mostly) full-time basis at least until he gets his 3,000th hit.
The Yankees don't really "owe" him this, or anything for that matter, however, keeping him on the field to achieve this milestone keeps both him and the fans happy, and carries the added bonus of giving the Yankees brass the most important thing it needs right now: time.
As awful has Jeter has been this season, and as much as we hate his rally-killing groundballs, it's very likely that his actual skill set isn't really this bad. We're still early enough in the season that batting statistics haven't fully normalized yet; going 5 for 5 tonight would raise his triple slash line to the .285/.350/.300 range, which is actually in league-average territory for an AL shortstop. It's a far cry from his heyday, and clearly not worth $17 million a year, but an average-hitting shortstop is still a useful player.
Time is important. There are still players hitting over .400 and pitchers on pace to win more than 30 games. Jeter should get his 3,000th hit by midseason, and at that point, we'll have a much better idea of where his true skill level currently is.
2.) His spot in the lineup should be flexible in order to maximize his value.
Jeter's weaknesses are more noticeable these days, and he's now at a point where his strengths can no longer fully compensate for them. That doesn't mean he no longer has strengths, however. Since the beginning of 2010, his batting line against left-handed pitchers has been .316/.392/.464. That kind of hitter belongs at the top of everybody's lineup.
His line against righties is a much less stellar .245/.311/.308, which is probably right around replacement level, and since the beginning of last season, roughly two-thirds of his PAs have come against same-handed pitchers. The Yankees should work hard to decrease that ratio.
When a right-hander is on the mound, he should be moved to the 8th or 9th spot; this will help to minimize his exposure as these lineup spots only come up about 80% as often as the top of the order. Joe Girardi can also give him an occasional day off against the best righties and pull him for defensive substitution a little more frequently. In doing this, Jeter will still remain the regular starter, and still have his 225 good plate appearances against lefties, he'll just be limited to 300 mediocre PAs against righties, rather than 500, and his overall batting line and WAR should look much better.
3.) They should discuss this plan with him and give him input without letting him steer the course.
The Yankees should say the right thing in public, but privately, somebody needs to have a heart-to-heart with Jeter. Let him know what he means to the franchise, but let him know what the team is trying to do right now: win. Let him know that he's going to have to accept a gradual move to the bottom of the lineup, off days against tough right-handers, and defensive substitutions. Let him know that you're trying to put him in the best possible situation to both maintain his dignity on the field and eventually bow out gracefully. If he wants to, let him claim he's suffering from a nagging hamstring injury or a quad strain, whatever he wants, to put a more positive spin on the situation. One thing should be made clear, and that is that pure emotional decisions will not trump baseball decisions.
4.) If all else fails, remember that feelings may be hurt, but time heals all wounds.
It's important to remember that once an icon's performance on the field begins to slip, it very rarely ends well in the short term for either the player or the team. But those unhappy endings are usually short-lived. Joe Torre left the Yankees in probably the most unceremonious fashion possible less than four years ago, yet he'll be at Old Timers Day this year, and you can bet that "Joe Torre Day" and a plaque in Monument Park are just around the corner.
The Yankees need to make the best possible baseball decision, and Jeter's ego and pride will very likely take a hit as this process unfolds. Nevertheless, he'll get over it. Every MLB player's goal should be to retire in pinstripes, because there's no other team that comes close to celebrating it's history the way the Yankees do. Jeter and the Yankees will make amends, and he'll get a front-office job and a lifetime of standing ovations at Old-Timers Day, because that's simply what rational people (and beloved Yankee icons) do.