Why The Yankees Still Need Alex Rodriguez

The last time the baseball world saw Alex Rodriguez, he was suffering through one of the more dismal Octobers in recent memory. Rodriguez managed a mere three singles over seven games against the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers, but the box score really doesn’t tell the entire story. He was regularly benched and pinch hit for during the playoffs, a prospect that would have seemed unthinkable just months earlier.

Since then, everything new we’ve heard about Rodriguez has been problematic. In January, he underwent surgery to repair a torn hip labrum that had been bothering him during the playoffs and has kept him from playing in 2013. A few weeks ago, his name once again came up at the center of the ongoing Biogenesis PED scandal that Major League Baseball wants so badly to come down hard on him and others for.

It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that Rodriguez is the least popular name in baseball these days, and as he turns 38 next month, he’s clearly a shell of the dominant superstar he once was. Considering that the Yankees have jumped out to a surprising 39-33 start without him, more than a few New York fans would be all too happy to see him quietly go away and never come back, despite the four years and $86 million he still has coming to him after this season.

But for all the baggage he brings, the Yankees could really use him right about now.

Punchless lineup

It would usually sound odd to say that there’s surprise in the fact that the generally mighty Yankees have managed to stay in the race, but there’s little that’s usual about this year’s team, which has had to rely on castoffs such as Reid BrignacJayson NixThomas NealLyle OverbayChris Stewart and Vernon Wells while A-Rod, Derek JeterCurtis Granderson andMark Teixeira deal with injuries.

Somehow, at the midway point of May, the Yankees were up by two games in the tough American League East thanks to surprising performances from Overbay and Wells, in particular. But Brian Cashman’s collection of misfit toys has begun to show its cracks. Over the past 30 days, the team has a woeful .264 wOBA that rates as the worst mark in baseball; unsurprisingly, the Yankees have slumped and now sit in third place.

The problem is particularly acute at third base, where Yankees third basemen have combined for a .235/.292/.371 line, good for a .271 wOBA that’s better than only four other clubs. Now that news has come down this week that Kevin Youkilis will miss most of the rest of the season due to back surgery, the Yankees are down to Jayson Nix and struggling 26-year-old rookie David Adams (.200/.220/.313) at the position. If this team plans to stay in contention, it will need an improvement at the hot corner, but that’s unlikely to come from a thin trade market or the nonprospects manning the spot at either of its top two minor league affiliates.

A-Rod’s upside

That’s where Rodriguez can still be useful. No, he isn’t the same player who hit .358 as a 20-year-old shortstop in 1996, and he’s not close to the hitter who has eight seasons with at least 40 home runs. At this point in his career, he’s all but certainly not worth a fraction of the salary that’s still owed to him. But then, he doesn’t really need to be, does he? To help the Yankees right now, he merely needs to be better than Adams and Nix, and that seems like a bar that even a diminished Rodriguez is capable of clearing.

But what exactly can Rodriguez provide? No one knows how this hip injury will affect him, though it’s worth noting that the Rodriguez we saw struggling so badly in October wasn’t the same one we had seen all year. Over Rodriguez’s first 97 games (through July 24), he was carrying a line of .276/.358/.449 with slightly below average defense. If that seems like far less than vintage Rodriguez, note that AL third basemen as a whole this year are hitting .258/.317/.401. If you compare Rodriguez not to the elite superstar he once was but to the current collection of third basemen in the league, that’s still an above average hitter.

We chose July 24 of last year because that was the day that Rodriguez’s left hand was fractured by a pitch from Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez. Rodriguez returned Sept. 2 at the low end of the original six-to-eight week estimate, and as so often happens with hand injuries, his short-term power was missing; he hit just .261/.341/.369 for the remainder of the season. By the time he made it to the playoffs, his hip was a concern as well, so the Rodriguez we saw getting benched in October was a different player than the one playing well in July.

Rodriguez has begun taking batting practice with an eye on a return around the All-Star break. If he is merely league average for the remainder of the season, starting a few times a week at third base and giving Travis Hafner a break against lefty pitching at designated hitter, it probably won’t win him back any fans and would likely qualify as the worst season of his sterling career. But even that would still count as a pretty nice upgrade over what the Yankees currently have.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Maybe the time off helped. I remember when he came up and I got to see the first generational talent from minors to all star. For all of the bad I would give anything to see him pull it together one more time. He had game.