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The Strike Zone

A-Rod likely back for rest of season while appeal is heard, but how good will he be?

Alex Rodriguez. Yankees As long as he stays healthy, Alex Rodriguez should be able to settle in as the Yankees' third baseman. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

CHICAGO -- After his debut last night, Alex Rodriguez declared, “From this moment on, I'm going to focus on baseball, play every game like it's do or die.”

Such tunnel vision probably won’t be possible, as distractions will inevitably pop up in the form of new comments or newly leaked evidence, not to mention his daily tribulation of playing in front of hostile crowds. All of those will drive attention back to Rodriguez’s suspension and appeal, but with each passing day, the Yankees third baseman may gain something approaching normalcy on the field. (After all, he’s already used to getting booed everywhere he plays.)

Off the field, however, his legal defense team will be mounting its appeal of his 211-game suspension that officially begins Thursday and runs through the end of the 2014 season, though Rodriguez’s appeal will allow him to continue playing.

“This is probably Phase 2 just starting,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not going to get easier. It’s probably going to get harder.”

He’s in the best possible hands, having retained David Cornwell, who reigns at the only attorney known to have won a drug-suspension appeal against Major League Baseball. Cornwell represented the Brewers’ Ryan Braun two years ago when his ban was overturned on a technicality.

It’s impossible for outsiders to know how involved Rodriguez will be in the appeals process and how much of a distraction it may be. He acknowledged Monday that he has seen all the evidence against him but declined to comment on any of it.

For the league to impose such a historic ban on Rodriguez -- more than three times as much as any other player -- it must have voluminous evidence against him. The league’s statement said the suspension was based on “his use and possession of numerous forms of prohibited performance-enhancing substances, including Testosterone and human Growth Hormone, over the course of multiple years,” as well as his attempt to “cover-up his violations of the Program by engaging in a course of conduct intended to obstruct and frustrate the Office of the Commissioner's investigation.” (Rodriguez’s own statement said, “I am disappointed with the penalty and intend to appeal and fight this through the process.”)

Pouring through all that evidence and preparing a defense will take time. The two sides will also need to find an opening on the busy calendar of the league’s arbitrator, Fredric Horowitz. On a conference call Monday, Players Association executive director Michael Weiner said he didn’t expect Rodriguez’s appeal to have a resolution until November or December.

Such a late date, well into the offseason, means it’s a safe assumption that Rodriguez will be able to play the rest of the 2013 schedule -- so long as his body holds up. He already had one setback during his rehabilitation from hip surgery when he strained his quad, and the 38-year-old has had several disabled list stints over the past few seasons already.

On Monday night, in his first big league game in roughly 10 months, Rodriguez went 1-for-4 with a bloop single, two deep flyouts and a strikeout. Manager Joe Girardi batted him fourth both for his expectation of Rodriguez’s performance and also for his lack of alternatives. The Yankees’ offense has been foundering for weeks; its third basemen have hit an AL-low four home runs this season.

With Monday’s game in the books, Rodriguez probably has 51 more games left to play, as New York seems unlikely to return to the postseason, before learning the fate of his appeal. During that time, we’ll get to see how what kind of player he still is. We know he’s signed through 2017 with at $89 million due to him in the final four seasons -- though the 211-game suspension could cost him more than $30 million of that -- but after his self-described “horrific” postseason in which he went 3-for-25 and was repeatedly pinch-hit for, there are questions of whether he can even be a productive major leaguer, much less the superstar he’s being paid to be. The repair of the torn labrum in his hip, which was undiagnosed last October, should help, but Rodriguez was realistic about what he’s facing. He called the past seven months “the worst time in my life” not only for the circumstances of the suspension but “also dealing with a very tough surgery and a rehab program and being 38.”

At the end of this season, the odds are high that he’ll serve some sort of suspension, though it’s possible it could be reduced on appeal. That decision will be left to the arbitrator, and his defense will be in the hands of Cornwell. And so, for now, Rodriguez, who repeatedly referred to the “important games” the Yankees are about to play, will try to worry only the baseball.

POLL: Is A-Rod's suspension too long, too short or just right?

LEMIRE: A-Rod circus blows into the Windy City

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