If he ends up playing 130 games this season (hardly a sure bet), Derek Jeter will pass George Brett and Mel Ott on an impressive all-time list. Jeter will have played 2,732 games, all with the Yankees, just behind Al Kaline for games with one team and only one team, according to Baseball Reference. Here's a ranking of a hypothetical top 20, assuming Jeter plays 130 games (and, uh, doesn't get traded midseason):
1. Carl Yastrzemski, Boston, 3,308
2. Stan Musial, St. Louis, 3,026
3. Cal Ripken, Baltimore, 3,001
4. Brooks Robinson, Baltimore, 2,896
5. Robin Yount, Milwaukee, 2,856
6. Craig Biggio, Houston, 2,850
7. Al Kaline, Detroit, 2,834
8. Derek Jeter, NY Yankees, 2,732
9. Mel Ott, NY Giants, 2,730
10. George Brett, Kansas City, 2,707
11. Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, 2,528
12. Chipper Jones, Atlanta, 2,499
13. Dave Concepcion, Cincinnati, 2,488
14. Tony Gwynn, San Diego, 2,440
15. Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, 2,433
16. Luke Appling, Chicago White Sox, 2,422
17. Mike Schmidt, Philadelphia, 2,404
18. Mickey Mantle, NY Yankees, 2,401
19. Lou Whitaker, Detroit, 2,390
20. Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh, 2,360
This is obviously a list of baseball luminaries. Each one of these players -- with somewhat varying degrees of intensity, are beloved in their hometowns; with the exceptions of Concepcion, White and (unfairly) Whitaker, they're all Hall of Famers, and you can't walk through their home stadiums without seeing their names and pictures everywhere. This is what we claim to adore about baseball and its players: It means something when someone plays their whole career with one team.
It is the basis of how players are valued not just as fans, but as executives: Player control is the buzzword, the notion a player is most valuable when he is under team control, when he is with the team that drafted him and nurtured him. As a general rule -- with obvious caveats about a free-market system and player flexibility -- the world of baseball works better when players spend their whole careers with one team. Fans like it, teams like it and, when it works out for a player, players like it. (No one on that list would ever say, "I just wish I had been traded more.")
So, let's take a look, then, at the active list of players who have played the most games with just one team, heading into the 2014 season. (Todd Helton would have been second on this list, had he not retired in the offseason, and we'll knock off Robinson Cano and Brian Roberts, both of whom switched teams this winter.)
1. Derek Jeter, NY Yankees, 2,602
2. Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia, 1,952
3. David Wright, NY Mets, 1,374
4. Chase Utley, Philadelphia, 1,323
5. Yadier Molina, St. Louis, 1,218
6. Nick Markakis, Baltimore, 1,210
7. Ryan Howard, Philadelphia, 1,178
7. Joe Mauer, Minnesota, 1,178
9. Andre Ethier, LA Dodgers, 1,145
10. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington, 1,137
11. Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee, 1,021
12. Dustin Pedroia, Boston, 1,016
(Thanks to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold, who initially put together this research.)
This is kind of amazing to consider. Jeter aside, none of those players even seem like they've even been in the league all that long. David Wright might own just about every Mets record already, but he's still only 31. And he's third on this list. Sixth place is Nick Markakis, someone the Orioles are still trying to figure out what kind of player he's going to turn into. Billy Butler, No. 12, was still on top prospect lists as recently as 2008.
Also worth noting: Most of these guys are lucky to still be with their own teams anyway. Utley probably should have been traded in August, Zimmerman can barely play his position anymore, Weeks might have lost his starting job entirely and Butler was reportedly on the trading block all offseason. Of all the players on here, the only ones you could say are likely to remain with their teams their whole career are Jeter, Molina, Mauer (because of local ties), maybe Pedroia, maybe Rollins (just because he's so old already) and probably Howard (just because his contract is so terrible that no one would ever trade for him).
I bring this all up not as some sort of, "Oh, for the days when players stuck around one team!" nostalgic lament. (First of all, it's not true: Of that top 20 above, more than half played in the '80s or later.) It is meant more as a reminder that this notion of Team Control is all a bit blown out of proportion. Most of the time, it never even gets that far.
Let's take a look at, say, Mike Trout. Now, Mike Trout and the Angels just settled on a one-year, $1 million contract, and they're trying to come to terms on a long-term contract. (Which is probably not going to work out for them no matter what happens, but then again, an argument could made that it's difficult not to underpay a player of Trout's quality.) But if Trout just plays out the amount of team control the team has (though 2017) and doesn't miss many games and doesn't sign an extension, he will have been an Angel for roughly 6 ¼ years. Let's say he plays 150 games each of the next four years he's under contract. That's 936 games, just about enough to break into that top-12 list above. And he will be 26 years old.
This is to say: Team Control is really just for the beginning. Trout is in some ways an exception to this because he started his career so early, but he's also the exception who proves the rule. Because most players don't make it to the bigs when they're 21 -- the Cardinals have made a bit of a living calling guys up late; David Freese was under team control, before the Cards traded him, through 2015, when he will be 32 -- by the time they fully reach free agency, their peak years are over. (This is another reason there are so many Phillies on the most-active-games-with-one-team list: They waited forever to call up Utley and Howard.) It is almost always to the team's benefit.
Players don't stay with one team very long because they're disloyal, or because they only want to play for the highest bidder. They don't stay long because teams don't want them to stay long: By the time they get expensive, teams are ready for them to leave. The whole structure of the game is now based on players being cheap for their original team and expensive, later, for somebody else.
This is going to keep that top-20 list Jeter's moving up from being dynamic over the next few decades, I bet. That's just not how the game is played anymore. But don't blame the players for this. This is the way the teams want it to work. And thus: Nick Markakis, senior statesman of the American League. The players on your favorite teams have become like the weather: If you don't like it, just wait a little bit. They'll be completely different very soon.