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Don't Be Misled: Jeter Nowhere Near Finished

They say that 40 is the new 30. But I guess this axiom doesn't apply to athletes, if the recent torrent of articles regarding the supposedly imminent - or actually occurring - decline of Derek Jeter are accurate.

An inordinate amount of discussion has been devoted to this moot topic. No question has ever existed that the Yankees shortstop will re-sign for at least two years and will continue to be handsomely compensated, if for no other reason than the fact he was a Yankees monument by age 25.

Jeter did have a truly terrible year by his lofty standards. His .270 average was 44 points below his career number, and his on-base and slugging percentages were similarly dreadful. Jeter's weak performance was unsuitable for a leadoff man, a position in which he has been comfortably ensconced for some time.

With their noxious spending habits, the Yankees have the financial means to overpay Jeter, as most are saying is likely. The Yankees have treated other members of their recent glory-years teams with not-so-benign indifference (see Williams, Bernie), but they are not so clueless as to disregard their most royal subject of the last 50 years. So with Jeter, the Yankees will not behave like spoiled heirs casting aside their parents to a nursing home after they become feeble. In this case, management will be the caregiver until Jeter decides it's time to retire.

But this is all premature talk. Jeter is not going away anytime soon. It appears that collective amnesia has taken hold of many in the sports media, who conveniently forget that very recently Jeter was performing ... like Jeter.

Just go all the way back to 2009 when Jeter, at the advanced age of 35, assembled one of his finest offensive seasons, hitting .334 with 30 stolen bases and a .406 OBP. I don't recall any clamoring at season's end for Jeter to switch positions or cut playing time or move down in the lineup or even - God forbid - for the Yankees to part ways with him. This is the man who provided so many eternal moments seared into not just Yankees lovers' but also baseball fans' memories. Recall the flip to Jorge Posada in the 2001 ALCS, the World Series Game 4 comeback home run in the aftermath of 9/11, the diving into the stands for a miraculous catch on an Independence Day weekend against the Red Sox in 2004 ... I could enumerate a dozen more.

So is the all-too-simple reasoning thus: Since Jeter will be 37 next year, his past performance is of little use? Jeter has had several subpar years and has come back each time to enhance his resume the following season. Consider the three previous times he hit below .300: .291 in 1997, .297 in 2002 and .292 in 2004. He followed these seasons, respectively, with campaigns of .324, .324 and .309, all significant increases.

Plenty of other Hall of Famers continued to perform at high levels even after a few mediocre years in the autumn of their careers. A couple of players who come to mind are George Brett and Dave Winfield.

At 36, Brett, arguably the greatest pure hitter of his generation, had his worst season at 282. The next year, Brett came back to claim the AL batting title - the first man to claim that prize in three different decades.

When Winfield was 37, his last year with the Yankees, he produced his customary 25 home runs and 107 RBIs. But after struggling for the next two years, most assumed his great career was over. But he bounced back at 41 with 26 homers and 108 RBIs to help lead the Blue Jays to their first World Series title. And if Jeter maintains his superb physical conditioning, there's no reason to believe he won't mimic these players and turn in several more productive offensive years.

Then there's Jeter's supposed lack of mobility on defense, which his critics try to exploit. Yet he has won five of the last seven Gold Gloves at shortstop. But the fantasy and stat geeks who seemingly want to rob fans of the instinctual joy of the sport will point out that Jeter can't move to his left or right like 90 percent of the other shortstops or is slow to race out for shallow fly balls. So how can he win? He's effective enough to garner acclaim for his efficient defense, but because he's not as nimble in certain moments, he's labeled a liability.

Take my word for it - and I'll welcome any comers willing to gamble - that Jeter will hit higher than .300 in 2011 and will cause many a critic to rethink their rushed judgment that the natural is past his prime.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports. His work has also appeared in Yahoo.com, MSNBC.com, and Tennis Week. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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