DETROIT (AP) The New York Yankees missed the playoffs the last two years while saying goodbye to a pair of greats. Mediocrity - or, worse yet, irrelevance - was a very real possibility heading into 2015.
Of all people, it's Alex Rodriguez who might keep this team from becoming an afterthought.
Rodriguez is back from a season-long drug suspension, and it's certainly fair to wonder how much the Yankees even wanted him around. But in one of the more intriguing developments of the past few weeks, A-Rod is producing.
Now a 39-year-old designated hitter, Rodriguez already has four home runs, and he's given New York fans something to cheer about after the team's underwhelming start.
''The one thing I've seen about Alex, since he's been back, he's having fun and he's enjoying what he's doing,'' manager Joe Girardi said. ''Hopefully that just continues for him.''
The stage is now set for a fascinating scene Friday night, when the crosstown Mets bring the majors' best record and a team record-tying 11-game winning streak to Yankee Stadium. That will be Rodriguez's first game back from a 10-game road trip in which he flashed some of his old power.
The Mets look like a definite threat to wrest New York's attention away from the Bronx Bombers this year - and A-Rod may be the man best positioned to prevent that from happening.
The Yankees lost four of their first five games but have played well since then.
Rodriguez has been a big part of the resurgence. He's hit four home runs with 11 RBIs, and his .265 batting average is coupled with an AL-leading 13 walks. He got a planned day of rest Thursday as the Yankees won 2-1 at Detroit.
Rodriguez hasn't played a full season since 2007 because of his suspension, operations on both hips and other injuries. He appeared in only 44 games in 2013, playing during the stretch while appealing what was at first a 211-game ban stemming from an investigation by Major League Baseball into performance-enhancing drugs. An arbitrator ruled the following January he had to sit out the entire 2014 season.
There was some speculation his career might be over - that the time away would be the last straw for a player who was already showing signs of breaking down. Instead, Rodriguez looks refreshed after the long layoff.
''It was a blessing in disguise,'' Rodriguez said. ''I had an opportunity to heal my hips and to heal my body a little bit, and the first time I've had a chance to train and not rehab in like five years. Hopefully that pays dividends, but I feel healthy and it feels good.''
Rodriguez's arrival at spring training this year wasn't exactly the feel-good story the Yankees needed after Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera retired following the previous two seasons - and the fact the Yankees owed A-Rod $61 million for the final three seasons of his contract didn't help.
But Rodriguez is doing his part to make the situation more palatable. Fans in New York were supportive during the Yankees' first homestand, and for 10 minutes before a Sunday night game against Boston, he signed autographs down the line in right field. He's been available to reporters, while avoiding comments that might cause a distraction or make the relationship between him and his front office more strained.
He deflected a question in Detroit on Wednesday about whether opposing fans still view him as a villain, saying boos on the road are nothing new.
''It's been one long boo for 15 years,'' he said. ''We play for the New York Yankees. You want to be cheered at home and you get booed on the road.''
Rodriguez now has 658 home runs, two shy of tying Willie Mays for fourth on the career list. Reaching that mark could trigger a dispute with the Yankees over whether they owe him $6 million as part of a marketing deal, but A-Rod has done little to fan the flames of that potential controversy, saying he doesn't want to talk about No. 660 until he reaches it.
When Rodriguez's suspension was first announced in 2013, he reacted defiantly, but since serving his ban the following year, he's taken a less confrontational approach. It may be too late to remove the stigma of PEDs from his legacy, but at the very least, he's following a blueprint that could make his return to the Yankees a positive one for both him and his team.
''He's done everything we've asked,'' Girardi said. ''He's gotten on base, he's taken his walks, he's driven in runs - he's basically done what you want a DH to do in the middle of the order.''