Jeter's back, but Yanks have work to do

Derek Jeter will be back in pinstripes after signing a three-year deal worth $51 million

On the very day the Boston Red Sox reached across the country to get the player they’ve always wanted, the New York Yankees reached across their clubhouse and got the player who, by some appearances, had been shoved down their throats.

Derek Jeter(notes) is a Yankee again, and history will show he never really wasn’t. And maybe it’s best to remember it that way, as one long and seamless and elegant path, right up until the time someone has to tell Jeter he can’t play shortstop anymore. What’s a little “messy” among friends?

Until then, Jeter resumes his place as the one Yankee the Yankees never had to worry about, which is good, because the Red Sox today have given them plenty of that.

The Yankees will be into Jeter for $51 million over three more seasons, a contract that includes an $8 million player option for a fourth year, at which time he'll be 40. The deal likely will pay for itself. He is 74 hits from 3,000, just that far from one of the grander celebrations the new ballpark will ever see. He will raise his helmet by its ear-flap, the way he always does, and blink away any notion he is more than a humble servant of the pinstripes and the game. Jeter is wonderful like that, and a winner like that, and proud like that.

The Yankees can only hope that he is still a player like that.

The outcome presided over by St. Steinbrenner himself, it is the contract that had to happen and, if you’ll pardon the melodrama, the destiny that had to be abided. In spite of the cranky rhetoric that spilled from beneath meeting-room doors, Jeter was going to be a Yankee, for better or worse, in sickness and in wealth. The money was never going to damage the Yankee machinery, and neither was Jeter. On opening day, he would trot stiff-legged to the foul line, he would flap his glove at the right-field bleachers, he would inside-out a fastball and the Steinbrenners would applaud from their suite.

The rest, however, remains to be written.

If Jeter proves his poor 2010 was a statistical aberration (career low .270 batting average and .710 OPS), the Yankees win. If Jeter’s legs and bat have irretrievably slowed, then the Yankees exhale and wait for the day the Florida Marlins decide they can no longer afford Hanley Ramirez(notes).

Either way, the Jeter and Mariano Rivera(notes) contracts arrived within hours of each other, momentarily comforting Yankee Universe and clearing Brian Cashman’s desk. As they did, however, a tremor rose from the north, where the Red Sox were recasting a roster that last season was strangled by injury. The Yankees, tending first to themselves, had spent roughly $80 million and weren’t yet better than they were last season, when they finished second in their division and were put to rest by a superior pitching staff in Texas.

On the board still are the best free agents: Cliff Lee(notes), Carl Crawford(notes), Adrian Beltre(notes), Jayson Werth(notes) and Rafael Soriano(notes). As the Tampa Bay Rays fall back, the floor is cleared for the Yankees and Red Sox, and as one divisional executive sighed Saturday morning, “Such is life in the AL East.”

On the eve of the winter meetings, the Red Sox completed their swap of prospects for San Diego Padres first baseman and slugger Adrian Gonzalez(notes), who in their ballpark could become Manny Ramirez(notes) without the act. Leaning against re-signing third baseman Beltre and repositioning Kevin Youkilis(notes) in left field, the Red Sox remain engaged with outfielders Crawford and Werth.

The offseason turns now on a free-agent class that tips toward mediocrity after a handful of players. Even with Jeter and Rivera in, the Yankees are shy at least one pitcher and perhaps a bat, meaning Lee (and, presumably, Andy Pettitte(notes)) and one of those outfielders. They convinced Jeter and Rivera to defer portions of their contracts, in part so they could bear down on Lee, in particular. Lee appears to be not a luxury for the Yankees, but a necessity, as the Red Sox already had the deeper rotation and threaten again to bang with the Yankees.

They’ll all know better come March, when the sides will have been chosen and the money spent. But, for now, what’s best for the Yankees is to know who will lead them, whoever they are by then.

Their captain, of course.