Returning from his season-long PED suspension and with age against him, Alex Rodriguez will have to prove that he deserves a spot on a crowded Yankees team.
It was nearly six weeks ago that Alex Rodriguez met with incoming commissioner Rob Manfred in Major League Baseball's offices in Manhattan. The meeting went well, with Manfred welcoming Rodriguez back to the game and telling the disgraced superstar that, as far as Baseball is concerned, the 162-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use that wiped out his 2014 season is a closed matter.
Rodriguez's welcome at Yankee camp on Monday wasn't nearly as warm. Arriving two days early in a green University of Miami tracksuit, Rodriguez immediately provoked the Yankees' ire for informing the media but not the team about his impending arrival. That was to be expected. Rodriguez's knack for doing the wrong thing, both in large and small ways, is arguably the only aspect of his public persona that has never been in doubt, and the Yankees have made little effort to hide their disdain for Rodriguez over the last year. Even before Rodriguez's early arrival this spring, it was reported that the Yankees intend to contest the marketing bonuses in his contract tied to the slugger's career home run totals. The first of those would be triggered when Rodriguez reaches 660 on his career—just six homers away—to tie him with Willie Mays on the all-time list and earn him a $6 million bonus.
It's unsurprising that Rodriguez can do no right in the eyes of the Yankees, but there's little reason for them to be excited about his return. Rodriguez will turn 40 in late July, didn't play at all last year, played just 44 games in 2013 (just 27 of them at third base) and averaged just 88 games per year from '11 to '13. Rodriguez hasn't started 100 games in the field since his age-34 season, and that was before he had surgery to repair the labrum and an impingement in his left hip in January '13. Given two hip surgeries in a five-year span, his age and his recent inactivity, Rodriguez's play on the field is now no more trustworthy than his actions off of it.
There's simply no precedent for a hitter of Rodriguez's age missing a full season and returning to have an impactful season. The closest comparison would be the White Sox's Luke Appling, who missed his age-37 season and played just 18 games in 1945 due to World War II, then averaged 4.8 Wins Above Replacement per year in his age-39 to -42 seasons. However, Appling is an extreme outlier and a player who had an MVP-level season at the age of 36 (he finished second in the voting). By comparison, Rodriguez was already well into his decline by that age; though relatively healthy that year, Rodriguez had a .783 OPS and was worth just 2.2 WAR that season. Ironically, that was during his most recent period of performance-enhancing drug use.
Rodriguez acknowledged his reduced standing on Monday, telling reporters that just he hoped to make the team. That's not necessarily an exaggeration. The Yankees know that the $61 million remaining on Rodriguez's contract is a sunk cost, and they're not thrilled about having him back on the team. And if he can't earn his way onto the team, it's not that crazy to think they could release him.
For starters, third base—the position that Rodriguez has manned for the Yankees since joining the team in 2004—now belongs to Chase Headley. After acquiring Headley from the Padres last July, the Yankees signed him to a four-year contract this winter to be their full-time third baseman. Not only was that a smart baseball decision by the Yankees, but it also sent a very loud message that Rodriguez, who has three years left on his deal, isn't even in the running to start at the position.
Rodriguez's task is thus to prove himself capable of being a part-time designated hitter and perhaps spotting at third base in a pinch. It wouldn't hurt him to work out at first base, as well. Looking at the Yankees' roster, if Carlos Beltran can still play rightfield—not a given for a player who will turn 38 in late April and had surgery to remove a bone spur and loose bodies from the elbow of his throwing arm last season—then Rodriguez could slot in as the short side of a designated hitter platoon with newly acquired lefty slugger Garrett Jones. There's the possibility of more playing time at first base should Mark Teixeira's struggles continue in his age-35 season. That would seem like the best-case scenario for Rodriguez at this point, particularly given that in his last two active seasons, he hit a mere .264/.352/.428 with 12 home runs in 355 plate appearances.
If Beltran needs more time at designated hitter, Jones could wind up platooning with Chris Young in rightfield, leaving little room for Rodriguez. From there, it's not difficult to envision a scenario in which Rodriguez is squeezed off the roster altogether if the Yankees decide they need more than just Brendan Ryan as a backup and potential platoon partner to lefties Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius in the middle infield. That would be an ironic end for a player who was once considered one of the greatest shortstops ever to play the game.
However it shakes out, the Yankees would seem to have little risk of having to pay out any more than the first of those milestone bonuses, as Rodriguez is 60 home runs away from the next number on the list, Babe Ruth's 714, and would thus have to average 20 homers a season in his remaining three years to get there. In the meantime, Rodriguez will at least pretend to try to blend in and focus on his work while the Yankees will begin the calculus of weighing his potential production on the field against the headaches and distractions he will continue to cause, intentionally or not, off of it. In the end, they may just decide it's worth it to give him $61 million to go away.