Alex Rodriguez will undergo arthroscopic surgery to repair a labral tear on his right hip and the procedure is expected to keep him out six to nine weeks. That would have him returning sometime in May. In the ultra-competitive AL East, which sent the Rays and Red Sox to the playoffs last year, this could be a decisive blow against the Yankees. Then again, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it may not matter much at all.
It's not unheard of for a team to be unfazed by the loss of one of its stars for a month or so. The Yankees themselves have survived similar blows in the past. In 2003 Derek Jeter separated his shoulder on a collision at third base on Opening Day and was out until May 13. The Yankees went 25-11 (.694) with Jeter on the shelf and had a three-game lead in the East when he returned. Last year the Rays lost Evan Longoria for a month down the stretch after he suffered a fractured wrist, but went 19-11 (.633) without him and maintained their lead in the East. The previous year the Phillies lost Chase Utley to a broken hand for a month late in the season, but went 17-10 (.630) in his absence and maintained their virtual tie with the Mets atop the NL East. All three of those teams won their division.
The obvious way for a team to survive the temporary loss of a star is with a strong backup. Last year the Rays had reclamation project Willy Aybar, who hit .308/.373/.525 in place of Longoria. In 2007 the Phillies were able to swing a deadline deal with the White Sox for Tadahito Iguchi, who hit .301/.357/.425 in place of Utley. The 2003 Yankees, however, had to rely on rookie Erick Almonte, who hit a mere .272/.337/.370 as their starting shortstop.
This year the top candidate to replace Rodriguez at third is veteran minor league infielder Cody Ransom, who impressed the team with a .302/.400/.651 performance over 33 games late last season. The 33-year-old Ransom isn't nearly that good (in several brief major league appearances he has assembled a .251/.348/.432 line), but he has some pop in his bat, will draw a walk, is a solid, athletic fielder, and has played third base more than any other position over the last three seasons. The primary in-house alternative to Ransom is another veteran minor leaguer, 32-year-old Justin Leone, who also hits right-handed with power and patience and low batting averages, but is less accomplished in the field and was an all-or-nothing bat in his lone major-league trial back in 2004 (six homers, 32 Ks in 102 ABs). There are no superior free-agent alternatives remaining on the market, and the Yankees would be foolish to make a trade for a six-week patch.
The good news for the Yankees, and Ransom especially, is that there are other ways to compensate for the short-term loss of a star, the best being an improved performance from other members of the team. If Rodriguez's teammates can pick up his slack for six weeks -- assuming his return occurs closer to mid-May -- his absence may well have been forgotten about by the All-Star break. The Yankees are actually in a great position to do that as there was so much slack on the roster last year that needed tightening to begin with.
If Jorge Posada, coming off shoulder surgery, can catch four times a week and hit like his former self, he'll represent a huge upgrade over Jose Molina, who inherited Posada's playing time last year. If Robinson Cano can build on the changes in his swing implemented by hitting coach Kevin Long last September and rebound to his 2007 level, he will help compensate for the loss of Rodriguez. If Hideki Matsui, currently rehabbing from knee surgery, can produce as the every-day designated hitter after a season shortened and weakened by that bad knee, he'll make up still more of Rodriguez's lost production. If rookie Brett Gardner, currently schooling Melky Cabrera in the spring-training battle for the starting job in center field, can simply get on base at a decent rate, as he did in the minors, he'll erase a lot of the outs that were made by Cabrera last year, thus giving Ransom a greater margin for error.
Of course the Yankees don't just need to hold the line for Rodriguez, they need to improve over last year's 89-win performance in order to challenge the Rays and Red Sox atop the division, but that's where the big additions that New York made over the offseason come in, and once Rodriguez returns in mid-May, all of the improvements made by Posada, Cano, Matsui and Gardner -- who also had his swing retooled by Long in order to allow him to hit the ball with more authority rather than simply slapping at it -- will be applied to the bottom line.
Looking at Baseball Prospectus's VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) statistic, which translates total offensive value into runs (with approximately 10 player runs equaling one team win), let's see what would happen if we cut out a month-and-a-half of Rodriguez's VORP total from 2008 (which already includes a three-week absence due to a strained quad muscle), and simultaneously upgraded Cano and Matsui to figures approximating their 2007 totals and Posada to something like his 2006 total (his 2007 was an MVP-quality season that he's unlikely to ever repeat).
Without factoring in Ransom's production, any marginal improvement from Cabrera to Gardner or the positive effect of benching Molina -- who had a -11.4 VORP last year -- the potential rebounds from Posada, Cano and Matsui alone would not only compensate for Rodriguez's absence but would also do so by so much that the Yankees would actually improve by six wins even with Rodriguez gone for six weeks. Adding those six wins to their 2008 Pythagorean total (determined by runs scored and allowed), would make the 2009 Yankees a 92-win team before we factor in their big-ticket offseason acquisitions such as Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher, and before factoring in the additional contributions that Joba Chamberlain is likely to make as a full-time starter.
That's all best-case scenario stuff, to be sure. Yet, even if you downgrade the expectations for Posada, Cano and Matsui, after factoring in Teixeira, Sabathia and company, the Yankees are right back in the thick of the AL East playoff hunt, as the Red Sox claimed the wild card last year with 95 wins and the Rays took the division with 97. Losing Rodriguez for six weeks isn't going to help the Yankees in their quest to return to the playoffs --- the win-and-a-half of VORP that they're losing could well be decisive in the major leagues' best division -- but it isn't going to hurt them as much as one might expect. The key is that New York will still have Rodriguez in the lineup for four-and-a-half months, and he's a player very capable of making up for lost time.