It is no longer early. The New York Yankees played their 40th game Friday night -- the generally accepted milestone at which teams step back and evaluate what they have at the season's quarter-pole. And what exactly do the Yankees have in Derek Jeter? They have a shortstop, the owner of the second-biggest contract in baseball history, who is hitting .190 and slugging .279.
Those are absolutely astounding numbers for a player who was a .317 career hitter entering the season, a player who only five years ago posted a season of .349, 24 homers and 102 RBI. Jeter has endured an 0-for-32 skid and an 0-for-17, which ended Thursday night in Anaheim.
The Yankees, who will make their first visit of the season to Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Tuesday, are professing no worries about their captain, who is seemingly healthy and outwardly full of confidence.
"The effort is the same as it's always been," Jeter told reporters this week, "but the results haven't been the same."
However, Manager Joe Torre was concerned enough to have considered benching Jeter for one game this week, only to be talked out of it by hitting coach Don Mattingly. Perhaps Torre should not have allowed himself to be swayed.
"The thing [Jeter] has always had going for him is that he plays to win. His personal numbers have always taken a back seat," Torre said this week. "That's why, more than a lot of other people, he can handle what's going on. . . . Someone with lesser substance who has trouble handling it might need a couple of days away. He continues to do the best he can. If that doesn't work, he has nothing to be sorry about."
With Jeter creating a debilitating drain at the top of the lineup, the Yankees are ranked 13th of 14 American League teams in batting average (.251) -- nearly 30 points below the Orioles -- which, one supposes, is not what owner George Steinbrenner had in mind for his $180 million team.
It is not all Jeter's fault, of course. Veteran center fielder Bernie Williams -- who, like Jeter, has been with Torre since the start of the Yankees' championship run in 1996 -- is hitting .230. Gary Sheffield has three homers. Enrique Wilson, who team officials thought could hold down second base long enough for them to find a suitable replacement for Alfonso Soriano, is hitting .188.
But it is Jeter -- the Yankees' captain, the prince of New York City, a player who should be in his prime (he will turn 30 next month) -- who has confounded fans and media alike with his baffling slump, giving birth to a cottage industry of amateur psychologists. Has Jeter been thrown off mentally by the addition of superstar Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees' clubhouse and lineup? Some people believe so.
It was already an unspoken reality that the Yankees would be playing their better shortstop -- Rodriguez -- at third base, in deference to Jeter's tenure and status in the organization.
And now, the higher Rodriguez climbs in the eyes of Yankees fans -- after a slow start, he is hitting .328 in May and is among league leaders with 10 homers -- the deeper Jeter sinks into his funk. It is no longer early in the season. Something is wrong with Jeter. And if the amateur psychologists are right about the reason, this could be a fascinating summer in the Bronx.
Meantime, in Queens . . .
Rumors are beginning to swirl that the New York Mets will make a run at Tampa Bay Devil Rays Manager Lou Piniella -- and this time won't botch it the way they did two winters ago.
Piniella would not address such speculation this week. But he is clearly fed up with the unmitigated disaster that his team has become. After Piniella spent the winter vowing the Devil Rays would not finish last in the AL East, the team has the worst record in baseball at 13-28.
"All I know is I'm tired of losing," Piniella told reporters this week. "That's what I'm tired of. Nothing more, nothing less. I'm just tired of losing. . . . Sooner or later you have to come to the realization that this thing isn't working. How often do you want to get punched in the mouth?"
Piniella has even taken to questioning his team's heart: "Guys that fight, and have some spunk, they get out of it much quicker than guys that accept it. I can tell you that for damn sure. I'm starting to feel that possibly we don't have that. How about that? That things are accepted. And that's not the way to do it.
"Sooner or later we're going to be in the middle of the summer here . . . and if we don't kick it in the butt a little bit, we're going to be in the same malaise we are now. And if we are, I hope it's with a bunch of different players, I can tell you that."
For the Mets to pry Piniella away would not be easy. He is signed with the Devil Rays through 2006. When the Seattle Mariners allowed Piniella out of his contract following the 2002 season, the Devil Rays had to give up outfielder Randy Winn as compensation in order to grab Piniella. The Mets, though interested, were not willing at the time to give up a comparable player.
Scouts who have seen the Seattle Mariners lately are stunned at how old and lifeless the team appears to have gotten practically overnight. But changes could be coming soon.
One scout said shortstop Rich Aurilia "is done," and the team is reportedly considering dumping him.
"It's to the point where it's almost embarrassing," Aurilia, who is hitting .241 with no homers, told the Seattle Times. "I know how much better I am than I've shown."
Designated hitter Edgar Martinez has told close friends he is contemplating retirement. And ace Freddy Garcia told a Spanish-language radio station in New York last weekend that it would "make my day" to be traded to the Yankees -- and he may get his wish at the July 31 trade deadline, if not sooner.
Around the Bases
So far, Philadelphia's new Citizens Bank Park is looking like the sport's biggest homer haven this side of Coors Field. The Phillies are averaging 1.9 homers per home game, and only 0.9 homers per road game. And on Tuesday night the Phillies and Dodgers combined to hit nine homers in one game.
"That game," Dodgers Manager Jim Tracy said afterwards, "was reminiscent of some we've seen at Coors Field over the past several years." . . .
Kansas City Royals GM Allard Baird is telling the many teams calling about Carlos Beltran that the highly coveted center fielder is still not available. But that could change very soon if the Royals (13-27) do not improve in a hurry. However, it is a virtual certainty that Beltran (and more specifically, agent Scott Boras) will not agree to a sign-and-trade deal, preferring instead to test free agency after the season. Beltran, then, would be a mere rental, but a spectacular one.