Alex Rodriguez has been all over the headlines this week, first as part of an overreaction to something he said via Twitter, and then as part of a farfetched insurance scam — or rather two seemingly contradictory ones — offered up by New York City's two competing tabloids to explain the Twitter flap. While it's not hard to understand the frustration the Yankees, the media or the general public may have with Rodriguez, most of it is overblown. Not everybody from among those groups is interested in the question of whether he can play baseball at a high level again, but the reality facing those who are is that the Yankees need him as much as ever, and thus far, there's not much evidence that he can't. He's not going away that easily.
New York's need has been particularly underscored in the past two days, during which the team announced the loss of Mark Teixiera for the season due to wrist surgery and then dropped a pair of games to the Rangers, the second of which saw them fall victim to a two-hit shutout by Derek Holland, who needed just 92 pitches (yes, that's another "Maddux") to do the deed. Among AL teams, the Yankees now rank 12th in the American League in scoring (3.87 runs per game), on-base percentage (.303) and slugging percentage (.383) and 13th in batting average (.240). They're 42-36, four games out in the AL East and half a game back in the wild-card chase, but the Rays and Blue Jays are within 2 1/2 games of them in the division race and within three games of a wild-card spot. There's no guarantee of a playoff berth for the team formerly worthy of the name Bronx Bombers.
The Yankees' Plan B solution at third base, Kevin Youkilis, is out until at least late August due to surgery to repair a herniated disc, and the position has produced one of the biggest holes in the offense. Consider the position-by-position splits from Baseball-Reference.com, which don't include Thursday's game and are ranked by OPS:
Besides Robinson Cano (second base) and Brett Gardner (centerfield) the Yankees aren't getting adequate offense from any position. While they can still expect Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter to boost the abysmal numbers of their leftfielders and shortstops once they eventually return in July, they need Rodriguez to do the same at third base, particularly since rookie fill-in David Adams is now hitting just .185/.227/.283 in 98 PA, and Jayson Nix is hitting .244/.307/.309 in 245 PA while sharing time at shortstop and third. Even if the 37-year-old slugger (38 on July 27) could only match last year's numbers (.272/.353/.430), he'd rate as the team's third-best hitter by nearly 70 points of OPS.
Despite Rodriguez's half-season absence as he recovers from hip surgery, there was little reason to think that he would not be able to do so, setting aside the question of whether the commissioner's office could come up with enough evidence to suspend him in the Biogenesis case. Nearly all of the reports coming out of the Yankees camp in recent weeks suggested his rehab from mid-January surgery to repair a torn left hip labrum — a procedure that from the get-go was presented as likely to keep him out until at least the All-Star break —was progressing normally. As of early May, he was hitting off a tee. As of late May he was taking live batting practice and fielding grounders. As of mid-June, he was running the bases at about 75 percent intensity and facing live pitching.
On June 20, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman reported a Yankees official saying A-Rod's recent rehab progress was "fantastic" and "well ahead of Derek [Jeter]," with general manager Brian Cashman on record as saying "Alex is clearly able to do everything functionally. It's just wrapping it all up and putting it into games." As of a few days ago, he was taking at-bats in simulated games. On June 24, Cashman told the New York Daily News regarding Rodriguez's return to game activity "it sounds like it’s on schedule. He’s been running, throwing, fielding, and I know it’s approaching. It’s coming.”
A day later, Rodriguez said via Twitter that Dr. Bryan Kelly, who performed the surgery and has overseen his recovery, "gave me the best news - the green light to play games again!" Cashman's now-infamous "shut the **** up" response, while reflecting the general manager's frustration at the player's talking out of school, pointed out that the decision on clearance was one to be made by team doctors, not by Kelly.
Rodriguez and Cashman have walked back their public exchange and shared "a constructive, healthy conversation", with the latter apologizing for his vulgarity and reiterating that the team would announce injury news, not the player. That kiss-and-make-up act sounds rather bizarre in light of the spin the Daily News and the New York Post have put on things. The Daily News' Bill Madden and Terri Thompson claimed that with an eye on a potential suspension by MLB, Rodriguez is rushing his rehab so he can get into games, then declare himself physically unable to perform so he can retire and collect the remaining $114 million on his contract. Saying this are "sources close to the ongoing drama" -- not even "a team offiical" or "a league official," the types of anyonmous sources who pop up in baseball industry reporting all of the time and lend credibility to trade rumors and other buzz.
Meanwhile, the Post's George King III wrote that Rodriguez told Yankee officials he's not ready to begin a rehab assignment because his hip hasn't healed sufficiently. As with Madden and Thompson, King also quoted his unnamed source — not even identified as a team official but as "a person with knowledge of the conversation" — as having "heard speculation" regarding a retirement/insurance collection scheme via which Rodriguez would collect his $114 million and the Yankees would recoup 80 percent of it via insurance.
Pardon me for suggesting that this is all a whole lot less rock solid than it's been made out to be. If you read this week's exchanges, you too qualify as having "knowledge of the conversation" and having "heard speculation," but that's less the point than the fact that Rodriguez would actually have to remain on the disabled list during the entirety of his premature retirement, as Albert Belle did when forced to retire due to a series of hip injuries back in 2001. From there he would be subject to MLB discipline, including suspension without pay, though the amount of money he would lose -- even if MLB can make a 100-game ban stick -- amounts to only $16 million based on this year's salary of $28 million and next year's salary of $25 million, since a longer ban would run into 2014.
But what's really farfetched is the assumption that an insurance company is just going to hand over the money to make the lives of the Yankees and Rodriguez easier, based upon a couple of sketchy tabloid reports full of unnamed sources. Insurance companies aren't charities, and anyone doubting the extent to which they'd resist paying out in the absence of sound medical evidence is naive.
Also farfetched? The notion that Rodriguez would somehow walk away from the one thing he still does better than 99.9999 (and a few more nines) percent of all humans: play baseball. As the tabloids have spent the better part of the past decade documenting, non-baseball activities such as romance, home decoration or social media, are not his strength. With the bat in his hand, though, he's still pretty good, last October's injury-related flop notwithstanding.
All of this appears to be similarly of a piece with the wishcasting from some that the Yankees would rid themselves of his contract, an impulse that goes back at least as far Rodriguez's 2009 admission that he used steroids prior to MLB's implementation of a testing program. The Yankees are by far the wealthiest team in the game, and their lawyers have been unable to find ways out of not only Rodriguez's contract despite multiple PED allegations, but also that of Jason Giambi when he was involved in BALCO. The Joint Drug Agreement has penalties for PED use, but it doesn't allow termination of a contract, and none of the lawyers for the other 29 teams have found a way to get out of similar situations either.
While MLB is currently interviewing players and other people connected to the Biogenesis clinic in an effort to accumulate enough evidence to justify suspensions on the basis of non-analytic positives, any attempt to suspend players is likely to be hard-fought by the players' union, particularly if MLB tries to justify 100-game bans for Rodriguez and Ryan Braun despite this being their first offense under the JDA. The bottom line is that logic still dictates that Rodriguez will be back with the Yankees before any suspension or retirement/insurance fraud scenario plays out, and his team will need even the 37- or 38-year-old version of him every bit as much as it ever has.