As he approaches 40th birthday, Derek Jeter still a plus for Yanks

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Derek Jeter of the Yankees prepares to bat Derek Jeter of the Yankees prepares to bat in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, June 19, 2014. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since 2004.

In six days, Derek Jeter will turn 40.

In a year of celebrations for the retiring captain, there will be no applause at Yankee Stadium or any other ballpark on Thursday. If photos of the birthday boy are taken, they will be private and probably won't go up on anyone's Facebook page or Instagram account.

As it so happens -- unless you believe Jeter has mystical powers over the MLB schedule -- the Yankees are off on Jeter's birthday.

As Jeter rounds third on his 30s and his career, it's worth taking a moment to realize that what he's doing this season is nearly as remarkable as anything he's accomplished to date.

He's not a great player anymore. But he's a player. He's healthy, he has been durable and he's helping the Yankees after missing nearly all of last season with a serious ankle injury.

That just doesn't happen when shortstops hit age 40. But 40 is clearly just a number to No. 2.

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It was not clear going into 2014 if Jeter would be a plus player. Or if he could play at all.

Of course, don't try telling him that.

"I expected myself to do what I've always done," Jeter said Thursday night. "That's what my expectation level is at all times. Sometimes it takes a little longer to get back. I never missed a year before."

Jeter is batting .276 with one home run and 16 RBIs after going 2-for-5 with an RBI groundout in the Yankees' 6-4 win over Toronto Thursday night. He has played in 62 of the Yankees' 71 games.

After some plate appearances that made it seem as if Bartolo Colon was a better hitter, Jeter has gotten 15 hits in his last 37 at-bats (.405).

If you like your stats newfangled, Jeter went into the game with a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 0.6, according to BaseballReference.com.

In the entire history of baseball, only three shortstops in their age-40-or-over seasons have had a WAR of 1.0 or better: Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Luke Appling and Ozzie Smith. So Jeter has the rest of the season to join them as a plus-one before he prepares to join the trio in Cooperstown in 2020.

But Jeter is not just succeeding in terms of history. He's succeeding relative to his current teammates. Of the Yankees' 11 most regular position players, Jeter had the sixth-highest WAR. The spread went from Brett Gardner's 2.0 to Alfonso Soriano's minus 1.1.

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The other shortstop in town, 24-year-old Ruben Tejada, had a WAR of 0.3. Jeter, nearly 16 years older, is still twice as valuable to his team.

Even in a down year for Jeter offensively and with his historically suspect range -- WAR has killed his defense for years, and rightly so -- Jeter is still a positive on the diamond.

"I felt if he was healthy -- and he had the offseason to get healthy -- that he would be a player that would really help us and would stabilize some things for our club," manager Joe Girardi said. "So I'm not really surprised at what he's done. My biggest concern was would he be healthy. When I saw him run in spring training and it wasn't necessarily guarded or difficult for him, I felt pretty good about what he could do."

So while Yankees fans might not get to celebrate Jeter in person on his 40th, they can celebrate the season he is having.

Jeter is exceptionally close with his father, but pays no mind to Father Time. That is usually not possible for a shortstop in leagues other than Sunday Beer.

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But in this, as in most other things, Derek Jeter continues to be in a league of his own.

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