DETROIT -- Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long is standing in the hallway outside the visitor's locker room at Comerica Park, and he's talking about Derek Jeter. Long does this quite often these days, because the performance decline of one of baseball's greats tends to generate its fair share of discussion. Long is talking about all the attention that was paid to Jeter's new approach at the plate during Spring Training, and, lo and behold, here comes Jeter himself, walking through the hallway on his way to the video room. Jeter, naturally, overhears Long.
"My God, K-Long!" Jeter says. "Stop talking!" But Long keeps talking. Just like the rest of us. The questions are being asked -- on the airwaves, in the papers and, yes, in the hallways lining Jeter's world. Is it time for the Yankees to push their captain down to the lineup's lower third, where his singles-laden statistics won't be quite so glaring? And more to the point, are we witnessing the beginning of the end of what is sure to be deemed a Hall of Fame career? As you might imagine, these are not questions that are particularly comfortable to pose in the Yankees clubhouse, where Jeter, for good reason, remains a respected, relevant ringleader -- and one who just so happens to have at least three more seasons, including this one, on his contract. "He's such a great leader and such a great player," Long says. "He does so many great things for us, as far as nurturing the young guys around here. He's one of the first guys taking extra BP. He works hard. Everything you could ask of a player, he does. He'll never stop doing that." Beyond his contributions to the Yankees, Jeter has been a great ambassador for the game -- a distinguished, decorated dignitary you can feel good about your kids pulling for. Yet the questions are fair, all the same, because Jeter is coming off the worst season of his life, and thus far has given little to no indication that 2011 will be any better. He is 37 and was already an anomaly two years ago, in terms of the performance and production he provided at his age and at his position. That his performance has declined in the time since is no indication of a lack of desire or talent or know-how or work ethic. It is an indication of what we knew all along yet routinely had reasons to ignore: Derek Jeter is human. Like all the great ones would, Jeter deflects any discussion that the player we've been watching these past 13 months -- a .267 hitter with no pop -- is, simply, the player he is at this late stage of his career. "That's a negative way of looking at it," he says. "I don't look at it like that. That's why I don't read it and why I don't like to answer questions about it. People are going to have their opinions, but I don't pay much attention to them." So you can be sure that Jeter has paid little mind to the growing debate on whether it's become necessary to move him from one of the first two spots to a less-prominent position in the batting order. Those who argue vehemently in favor of such a move are inherently ignoring the other under-performing pieces currently in the Yankees lineup, but Jeter's struggles -- he has two extra-base hits this season and a .355 slugging percentage dating back to the beginning of last year -- have been profound enough to make this a viable issue, all the same. The man who writes the lineup, manager Joe Girardi, has seen no need to move Jeter yet. But when the hypothetical is broached, the inevitable follow-up is the question of how the captain would respond to such a decision. "We're only going to know if we were ever to do something," Girardi says. "Derek's always been a guy that's been team-first. We're going to do what we think is best. We've had other guys who have struggled in our lineup, and we've stuck with them. I wouldn't say it's early, but it's still relatively early in the season, and we still have a lot of baseball left." Jeter, though, has played a lot of baseball. And time waits for no man. Few careers end gracefully, on the player's terms. And given the terms of Jeter's contract -- three years, $51 million, with a player option for 2014 -- the potential for a bumpy ending exists here. Nobody wants to see Derek Jeter's career draw to a close ingloriously, but the Yankees, who certainly and perhaps even rightly overpaid for the past, have so many years and dollars invested in Jeter that, at his age, it might be impossible for him to live up to the expectations of his contract. But while Jeter is an intentionally difficult person to get to know, he has revealed his personality enough over the years to suggest that he would handle a move down the order (and, eventually, to left or center field, though that seems much further off) with class and grace, a la the way Don Mattingly handled a similar situation in 1994. It has even been suggested that Jeter might volunteer to slide down, though that seems far-fetched. "I haven't seen many hitters who go to a manager and say, 'Can you move me down in the lineup?'' Girardi says. "Unless they want to hit third or fourth." No, this situation is going to have to play out to its inevitable conclusion at its own pace. Jeter deserves the benefit of the doubt and a long leash. Furthermore, it's difficult to imagine the Yankees making any major moves with him before he reaches the 3,000-hit plateau this summer. They simply have too much respect for him to do otherwise. "It's not about Derek Jeter hitting .300," Long says. "It's about the New York Yankees winning ballgames. He's a part of the Yankees trying to win a championship. We know it's a big deal that he hit .270 last year, but we also won 95 games and were one game from going to the World Series. So we can win and we can be very successful if Jeet hits anywhere from .260 to .300. "I'll take Derek Jeter at the top of our lineup every single day." That's what the Yankees have. And though it's become increasingly clear that the Derek Jeter of the present is not the Derek Jeter of the past, Jeter himself shows up each day expecting the best. "I just don't look at things negatively," he says. "I have a positive outlook on things. One good week, and all of a sudden you're considered hot." Until that week comes, the talk will continue.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.