Injury to A-Rod could be blessing in disguise for Yankees
One of the biggest stories coming out of the first day of baseball’s Winter Meetings in Nashville didn’t involve a trade or free agent signing, but a scheduled surgery. A number of sources reported on Monday that Alex Rodriguez will have surgery on his left hip in January.
This raises a number of questions, of course: How much time will he miss? How will the Yankees fill in the hole at third and in the lineup? Could this signal the end of A-Rod’s career? And, naturally, will this affect his ability to pick up hotties in the stands?
Early reports are that A-Rod had suffered this injury prior to the playoffs and it affected his performance – or lack of performance – against Baltimore and Detroit. One report said the pain became so great during the playoffs that he spent a night in the hospital.
Injury leaves big holes to fill
Word is that he will be out three to six months. Although specifics aren’t known yet, I assume this is his recovery time, which will mean another few weeks at a minimum to return to baseball-playing condition. At best he probably wouldn’t be available before the start of May; realistically it might not be until after All-Star break, and a worst-case scenario would have him missing the entire season.
This leaves a big hole for the Yankees, both in the field and in the middle of the lineup. The hole in the field is magnified by the fact that Derek Jeter may not be ready to play shortstop when the season starts.
Yankees will have to explore options
New York has several options for the field. I’m assuming they will use Eduardo Nunez at shortstop until Jeter is ready. Once Jeter returns they could move him to third until A-Rod returns. In the meanwhile, they will probably re-sign Eric Chavez and could use the stop-gap of Chavez and Jayson Nix they used last season when Rodriguez was out with a broken hand.
That does little to help the Yankees’ lineup issues, though. Although Chavez and Nix hit surprisingly well, they’re not likely to produce the big numbers the Yanks would expect from A-Rod. Right now the farm system doesn’t appear to have anyone who could step into that role. So New York GM Brian Cashman is likely to add third baseman to his shopping list.
Veterans available on the free agent market
There are several on the free agent market. One player Yankee fans would probably be loath to see in pinstripes is Kevin Youkilis, but he could be a surprisingly good fit. He is considered an excellent fielder at both third and first, which means he could also spell Mark Teixeira on occasions in an effort to keep him healthy. If his hitting after leaving the toxic atmosphere of Boston (15 homers in 80 games with the White Sox, .236/.346/.425) wasn’t a fluke, he could provide close to the kind of numbers A-Rod might have put up. He’s 34 and probably would want at least a two-year contract.
Also on the free agent market is Mark Reynolds after Baltimore decided not to retain his services. He switched to first for the Orioles, where he played solid defense, so like Youkilis he could be a good backup at either corner once A-Rod returns. Reynolds, though, has a giant hole in his swing as evidenced by leading the National League in strikeouts four straight seasons. But he also has high home run potential, having reached thirty three times. Placing him behind Curtis Granderson in the lineup would give the Yankees a combo that could set high marks for home runs and strikeouts. He’s younger than Youkilis (29) and would also expect a minimum of a two-year deal.
A short-term free agent option would be to sign 38-year-old Scott Rolen to a one-year deal and hope a platoon of him and Chavez would do the trick. Other aging possibilities for this kind of one-year hope-and-pray situation are Placido Polanco or Marco Scutaro. Any of these signings would necessitate A-Rod returning to full health and full-time playing ability next season at age 38.
Yanks could trade for long-term help
An interesting option for the Yankees would be to trade for a high-end prospect, like Texas’ Mike Olt, who probably will see little playing time for the Rangers with Adrian Beltre on the club. A similar possibility would be trading for Chase Headley, who had a breakout season with San Diego. The Padres have a top-10 third base prospect in the minors and might be willing to take some prospects in return for Headley. Headley is a switch-hitter who would fit in nicely in the Yankees’ lineup.
Trading for someone like Olt or Headley would indicate that the Yankees no longer have confidence that A-Rod can be their third baseman. Rumors already had been swirling that the Yanks planned on using him more as a DH.
How close is A-Rod to being finished?
Whatever the Yankees do to fill the spot, whether a short-term or long-term solution, the question still nags: How close is A-Rod’s career to being over?
Rodriguez will turn 38 in July, about the time he might be returning from this surgery. While Jeter had a tremendous season at age 38, the norm for players – even great ones like A-Rod has been most of his career – is for health and ability to both be on the down slope. And it often is a precipitous slope, especially for sluggers.
Frank Robison, for example, hit only 40 homers after his 38th birthday. Harmon Killebrew hit just 21. Cal Ripken Jr. was a part-time player after he turned 38. Willie Mays didn’t have any great seasons after turning 36, although he belted 28 homers in 1970 when he was 39. George Brett was barely an average player after 38. Mike Schmidt hit 529 homers before he turned 38, then just 19 more after that.
To think that A-Rod will have the kind of seasons Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds had after turning 38 is ludicrous. It’s doubtful he’ll be able to put in a resurgent season like Jeter had in 2012. Even in full health, it’s doubtful he’d have contributed more than 25 homers in 2013, with an OPS under .800. If the surgery is successful and he plays a full season in 2014, numbers in that range would be the upper end of expectations, even as a DH.
With a successful surgery, A-Rod could still be a contributor. He’ll likely hit at least the 14 homers he needs to surpass Mays on the all-time list, but I’ll be highly surprised if he comes close to 700. And I don’t think he’ll do it as an everyday player.
Injury will force Yankees to think about future
That means the Yankees have to find a permanent solution at third base sooner rather than later. The only third baseman among their Top 20 prospects is 20-year-old Dante Bichette Jr., who isn’t expected to be Major League ready until at least 2014.
If Jeter stays healthy, Nunez might be the answer at third. He showed some promise as a hitter late in the season. But the better possibility for the Yankees, I believe, is trading for Olt or Headley. For proven ability, Headley would be the best option for the next four or five years. Olt, who is only 24, is more of a risk because of his lack of Major League experience, but could be a fixture for a decade or more if he works out.
Although the injury to A-Rod seems like a blow right now, it could be a hidden blessing for the Yankees. Remember, it was a knee injury suffered by Aaron Boone in an ill-advised pickup basketball game that brought A-Rod to the Yankees in 2004.
The Yankees also need to start retooling for the future with younger players, and this could be the situation that forces them to do that. Even if they use a stop-gap measure to start the season, I think their best course of action is to bring in a younger player with an eye toward rebuilding for the future.