The Yankee third baseman became a bench player in the playoffs, but is that his role in the future?
Prepare for an off-season overflowing with Alex Rodriguez. He was benched in the ALCS against the Tigers, starting just two of the four games, with an appearance as a pinch-hitter in a third. He didn't play at all in the decisive Game Five against the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. Alex Rodriguez, in case you forgot, was paid $29 million by the New York Yankees this season.
This has (understandably) riled up just about everyone, in a will-they-or-won't-they-trade-him discussion. That conversation also includes what will happen to the Yankees and Rodriguez if he isn't traded, with many feeling that it's inevitable he -- and the five years, $114 remaining on his contract -- are sent elsewhere. That all works under the same assumptions, though: that the time of Rodriguez as a productive player has ended.
Is that because it's true, or is it at least in part because Rodriguez, as the game's highest-paid player and something of an enemy of the people over the years, is fun to kick when he's down? Not that Rodriguez lacks reasons for concern, but the din of the crowd has all but silenced the positives that remain for him.
Alex Rodriguez would not be the first superstar to have his game slide in his late-30s. It's expected that will happen, and that's the reason someone like Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, or Barry Bonds is so special: when they're in the twilight of their career, who they are is still who they were. After winning an MVP in 2007, Rodriguez has seen his performance dip slightly each year, from that season's 1067 OPS to this year's 783 mark, his first-ever under the 800 threshold in a full season.
There are two important items to take away from this, other than that it's a performance in decline. The first is that Rodriguez was still well above-average for the hot corner. Your average third baseman hit .266/.327/.427 in 2012, Rodriguez was at .272/.353/.430, and while that might not seem like a huge difference, the extra 26 points of on-base percentage are huge in terms of value. His OPS+ was 112, wRC+ 114, and True Average .280. Both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs rated him as two-win player despite his appearance in just 122 games. Over a full season, he'd contribute more, but if he stays in the 120-plus range he's developed over the last five years, he's still capable of being a productive member of New York society. Just 27 third basemen (defined by playing over 50 percent of their games at the position) played in at least 100 games in 2012, and Rodriguez ranked 13th in OPS+ among them.
On to reason two: Even though this was his worst season to date, there are reasons to think he'll be better going forward, at least temporarily. For one, look to Rodriguez's left, at Yankees' shortstop Derek Jeter. In his age-36 and 37 seasons, Jeter hit a combined .282/.347/.378. That's more than enough at shortstop, but it still represented lows for Jeter: 2010 was his first campaign with a below-average bat, and 2011 was exactly average. In 2012, though, Jeter surged to a .316/.362/.429 line, his best since he was 35. While Jeter isn't Rodriguez-level expensive, he still pulled in over $53 million in those three campaigns.
Much of the credit for Jeter's return to form came through his being healthy. He dealt with hip, foot, and ankle problems in the last two years, and was mostly healthy except for the occasional day-to-day pain throughout 2012. Rodriguez deserves the same benefit of the doubt, as he had his hand fractured in late July. Through the start of the year until the time of the injury, Rodriguez was at .276/.358/.449, roughly where he was in 2011. Upon returning in September, his bat looked slower, and he had a hard time driving the ball for power, resulting in a .108 Isolated Power and a strikeout in one-quarter of his plate appearances. Prior to the injury, Rodriguez whiffed 21 percent of the time, his worst since 2006, but just a couple of percentage points above his career rate.
Rodriguez isn't likely to post another 900-plus OPS campaign anytime soon, but given it takes time for injuries that can damage a swing to heal, the better idea of what Rodriguez will be going forward will come from 2013, not the last month of this season. He deserves some slack here, to return to the form he had before the injury, though he's going to be expensive regardless.
And that brings us to the real issue with Rodriguez: cost. He's owed $114 million over the next five seasons, but there are some important points to bring up here. Inflation alone will help, but Rodriguez's deal is also front loaded: He makes $28 million in 2013, but that scales down all the way to $20 million in the last two years of the deal. The Yankees aren't exactly short on cash, and more money comes into the game every year. The Yankees could pay for Rodriguez with the increased revenue from new national television deals alone, never even opening their own reserves.
The new collective bargaining agreement is why they might not want to. At the time Rodriguez initially signed, the Yankees had to know this day would come, when his value didn't match what he would be paid. But New York's resources are as close to unlimited as you can get in baseball, so if anyone could survive overpaying him, it was the Yankees. The new CBA allows a luxury tax penalty break that the old CBA did not, though. In the past, avoiding the luxury tax and then crossing it again would have meant the same penalties, but there's something of an amnesty clause built-in now that resets the tax from 40 to 17 percent. The Red Sox will achieve said amnesty following their massive August trade, and the Yankees want to follow suit. Rodriguez's $27.5 million average annual value makes it tough to get under the luxury tax threshold, even temporarily.
Any trade of Rodriguez is going to involve shedding the man, not the money. That makes it unlikely that he'll be moved in a way that benefits New York'x luxury tax aspirations, especially since they would then need to replace him at third base -- baseball players aren't free, you know. That might be okay, though, as we've seen: there are reasons to still think Rodriguez can be useful for the Yankees, despite his contract, and despite how people feel about him.