2011 Season Preview: Alex Rodriguez

Jesus Montero, Backup Catcher?
How much patience with Jeter?

As we count down the days and weeks leading up to the season, we’re going to preview the 2011 Yankees by looking at each of their core players and many, many more. A new preview will go up every day, Monday through Friday, from now until Opening Day.

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Last summer, Alex Rodriguez managed to hit .270/.341/.506 (.363 wOBA) with 30 homers, 3.9 fWAR, and more runs driven in (125) than anyone not named Miguel Cabrera. It was the worst full season of his career. Those are the kinds of standards A-Rod has set for himself, when being the seventh most valuable third baseman in the game is a self-admitted disappointment.

Finally given a clean bill of health for his surgically repaired hip after the season, nearly two years out from surgery, Alex went out and shed ten pounds and three percentage points of body fat this winter in an effort to streamline a body that was hardly out-of-shape. He came to camp noticeable slimmer and said he felt lighter on his feet, but all the workouts in the world can’t change the fact that A-Rod is a soon-to-be 36-year-old third baseman with a questionable hip.

Even if you discount the contract that runs through Phil Hughes‘ age 31 season, the Yankees need Alex to be a middle-of-the-lineup force in 2011, a guy that strikes fear into the heart of opposing pitchers and produces runs by the bucketful. If things break right, it will be glorious. If it doesn’t … well there’s some serious ugly potential.

Best Case

For most players, an MVP caliber season represents their best case scenario. For A-Rod, it seems like he’s capable of so much more; you know he has the talent to put up a year that re-writes the record books. The chances of him doing so are far less likely now than they were five or ten years ago, of course, but I’ll never put anything beyond Rodriguez.

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

With his hip finally a-okay, A-Rod’s once again capable of fully rotating his lower half during his swing, bringing back his power stroke and making those 30 homers he’s hit in each of the last two years look like child’s play. He’s able to hang in more against pitches on the outer half, raising his .304 wOBA on balls hit to the opposite field over the last two years back to the .359 mark he posted in the three years before the surgery. With some help from Yankee Stadium‘s short right field porch, he might even be able to top that. A-Rod’s sharp decline against left-handed pitchers (.323 wOBA in 2010 after .402 in 2009 and .395 career) turns out to be nothing more than a one year blip, explained by his comically low .212 BABIP against southpaws last season. More power means more walks as pitchers avoid him, raising that on-base percentage back up to an elite level. The statistical correction against lefties and his rediscovered power stroke bring back the glorious days of no doubt about it, take it to the bank .400+ wOBA production with 35+ homers.

Thanks to the decreased bulk and fully healed hip, A-Rod’s defense at the hot corner improves dramatically. His increased range on balls hit to his left saves a few extra runs and makes Derek Jeter‘s defensive shortcomings slightly more tolerable. Improved durability, well-above average offense, and above average defense at the hot corner makes Alex a legitimate MVP candidate again, a six win player that is always a three week hot streak away from a seven win season.

Worst Case

As wonderful as the clean bill of health for the hip is, it can’t reverse the aging process. A-Rod’s declining ISO just keeps going south, meaning the days of 30+ homers are long gone. Without the constant threat of being taken deep, pitcher pound him inside with fastballs with reckless abandon, resulting in a whole lot of broken bats and weak grounders that kill his average. Walks become even harder to come by, and the issues with southpaws turn out to be very real. Without warning, A-Rod’s turned into a glorified Edwin Encarnacion with the stick.

The defense doesn’t improve even with Rodriguez’s new streamlined physique and healthy hip; the reflexes just aren’t quick enough anymore. For the fourth straight year, he’s unable to play in more than 138 games, overexposing the likes of Eric Chavez, Ramiro Pena, and Eduardo Nunez. The similarities between A-Rod and late-career Mike Lowell become painfully obvious on the field, and it would be fitting since they both had the same major injury as they approached their mid-30’s.

Although the worst case scenario probably has the Yankees’ third baseman putting up a 2.5 or 3.0 fWAR season in 2011, it’s very possible that he’d be the fifth best player at the position in the AL East. That says as much about the abilities of Evan Longoria, Kevin Youkilis, Jose Bautista, and Mark Reynolds as it does A-Rod’s floor. Having the fifth best third baseman in the division while there’s $143M left on his contract would be an albatross of the likes of which we’ve never seen before.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

What’s Likely To Happen

It’s tough to nail down reasonable expectations for A-Rod. On one hand his production and durability has been down over the last three seasons (relatively speaking, of course), but on the other you know he’s capable of a monster campaign. If he hit put up a .350 wOBA with 25-30 homers, I don’t think anyone would be too surprised. If he posted a .400 wOBA with 35-40 homers, yeah I don’t think that would be a huge shock either. Unlikely at his age, but we’ve seen Alex do amazing things before.

Although I’m encouraged by how he looked over the weekend with regards to his weight loss and mobility, it was two games in February and tells us basically nothing. It’s very likely that the power decline is real and will continue, though we’re talking about a guy still capable of a .200+ ISO and 25 homers. I think he’s due for some positive regression on balls in play in 2011; his .270 BABIP in 2010 was good amount below his .296 expected BABIP (xBABIP), and that performance against southpaws is just so out of the ordinary that I can’t help but think it’s a fluke (jut 173 plate appearances against lefties last year, not a big sample at all). Even if he doesn’t return to the .450 wOBA monster he’s been throughout his career against left-handers, splitting the difference and getting back to a .380 wOBA would be a major upgrade over last season.

A-Rod is going to continue to hit in the middle of the Yankees lineup and will be heavily counted on for run production, and he’s fully aware of this. His skills are undeniably in decline in his mid-30’s, but his starting baseline was so high that if he’s just 75% of his peak, he’s still one of the best players in the game. Another season with a .270/.340/.500-ish line would be somewhat disappointing, sure, but still incredibly valuable.

Jesus Montero, Backup Catcher?
How much patience with Jeter?
  • pete

    I don’t think we’ll ever see more than 45 HRs out of him again, and even 40 is a long shot. But I think he has several more .380 OBPs and about a million more .500 SLGs left in him.

    I think he’ll hit .291/.388/.566 with 37 HRs this year.

    • RL

      I’d love to see numbers like that out of him this year. I definitely feel somewhere around your numbers are possible and hope he can put up 30+ HR seasons for a couple of more years.

    • kosmo

      40 HRs is a longshot but 37 HRs are not ?? What´s the difference ? 3 HRs ? Let´s say he´s still capable of 35-40 HRs per .
      I think AROD is going to have a monster season.Just a gut feeling.

      • pete

        eh I should have qualified my statement by saying that it is something of a long shot. I’m optimistic about him this year

        • Simon

          It is an odd year you know! :)

  • mike

    I expect a monster season from Arod – his personal life appears to be a little more stable and he has been given a clean bill of health.

    As mental challanges will always be his biggest issue, the fact he has a clean bill of health to push himself physically and with evidence his focus is on baseball with his conditioning regimes, i think he is more menatlly prepared to succeed than in years past.

    Big season for Arod-> Tex gets better pitches to hit -> Cano has more guys on base. all good stuff

    • pete

      “as mental challanges (sic) will always be his biggest issue”

      seriously? are there still people out there who believe this crap?

      • steve s

        Hank Aaron does.

  • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

    While it is too early to move him to DH full time, what is the breaking point? If he continues to miss a ton of games, when do you move him to DH in hopes of getting his bat in the lineup more often. There’s no replacement in house now, but do you pursue a 3B next year or the year after. If he starts playing 125 games a year (or less) with 115 at 3B, wouldn’t you rather throw him at DH and hope to get 145 games out of him?

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Depends on who the replace 3B would be. A-Rod at 3B + lg avg DH might be > A-Rod at DH + lg avg 3B.

      • mike

        everyone always speaks of Jeter going to the OF – could Arod? great athlete, no issues with knees or legs, cannon for an arm…i could see him in RF a-la Winfield, and maybe protecting his hip from 5-7 dives a game would be in his best interests too.

        the trade-off with lg av 3b is still the same, but then the DH spot would be open

        • Sean C

          And the hip issue would become a non-issue in the outfield?

          • mike

            from my knowledge his hip was a rotation issue, which would be an issue with a swing or quick pivot or dive.

            i am assuming that now the hip is no longer an issue, and even so the pounding his side/hip would take at 3B would be a bigger issue than if he were in the OF

          • YankeesJunkie

            There would be less lateral movement in the OF than at 3B.

          • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

            We’ve all seen A-Rod try to catch popups too, not pretty.

            • MannyGee

              yeah, pop ups are not his friend. I forget about that.. on account of, well, you know, the popcorn incident and all.

        • Jobu The Voodoo Troll

          If Gardner continues to play like he did last year (5.4 fWAR) it is going to be tough to take him out of the lineup so that Jeter or ARod can move to LF. You displace Granderson and move Gardner to center, but you are still taking a 3.6 fWAR player last year out of the lineup.

      • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

        But if you can get an extra 20 games a year out of A-Rod if he’s DH’ing (not a guarantee, but certainly less toll on the body), you have to consider rolling Pena/Nunez/Russo out there 30-40 times a year in the calculation. If he only plays 125 at 3B that’s lot of replacement player (or worse) AB’s. A-Rod might play 150 this year and push the conversation further into the future, but based on the past few years, I think that’s unlikely.

  • danimal

    I think entirely too many people are writing off Alex as an aging slugger who has seen his best years and will not have any more seasons like 2007.

    Maybe this is true, since ’07 was ridiculous, it was historic, it ranked with some of the best seasons in the history of baseball.

    BUT… this dude hasn’t had a full season since that year. He still has topped 30 HR’s even while playing only 130-140 games.

    I’ll buy that injuries might keep him from being a huge producer.

    I WILL NOT buy that dude is somehow experiencing a Bernie-esque bat speed slowdown and joint wear, etc. I’ll believe it when he tops out at 25 HR’s in FULL seasons.

    • Camilo Gerardo

      i agree. he was just a little too old to recover from the hip injury gracefully and a bit of a headcase with his swing mechanics

  • YankeesJunkie

    I think you would have to see a rebound in A-Rod’s numbers against lefites considering his low BABIP which will naturally help his numbers. His power will never be as prodigious as it was in 2007 he should still be able to his 30+HRs and a ton of doubles. A-Rod having a 5 WAR season at this point would not surprise me and with shown physical improvements is probably expected out of A-Rod.

  • Wil Nieves #1 Fan

    Alex was excellent when batting with runners on last year. I’d really like to see him continue that trend through the 2011 season. But as Mike mentioned above, Alex looks great physically. If it all comes down to the hip, I don’t see why he shouldn’t be able to hit 35 HRs.

  • Monteroisdinero

    I think the weight loss is going to be a huge positive for Alex. I think he’ll hit 35 this year. Batting between Tex and Robbie is RBI heaven. Next year Montero will bat 6th hopefully. Even better for pitchers trying to get out/challenge an aging ARod.

  • nsalem

    I won’t buy that he is in decline unless I see bad season from him.
    I just looked up Babe Ruth, Stan Musial and Ted Williams. in years 35 and 36. Not to shabby and I would imagine is A-Rod is in better shape than all of them. Anywhere near the seasons those 3 had would be quite acceptable.

    • kosmo

      Aaron had arguably his greatest season at the age of 37 .

      • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

        Steroids weren’t banned then, and they were in the game. Greenies also.

    • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

      Ruth, Musial and Williams were much better at 32-33-34 than Alex and hadn’t shown the regression that Alex has. Their performance at those ages is pretty unrelated.

      • nsalem

        All not true. He was injured, any surgery is not minor especially hip.

    • pete

      this is probably true, but a) none of those guys had the (admittedly mild) injury concerns he currently has, and b) the quality of pitching (not necessarily pitching talent, just the overall quality, especially later in games) is way higher nowadays.

  • jaremy

    If Alex is the 5th best 3B in baseball for the remainder of his contract, it’d be awful, but still be less of an albatross than Vernon Wells and Barry Zito. I would never call it “the likes of which we’ve never seen before”. But no doubt, 27 mill for a player putting up 3 WAR is a recipe for failure.

    • Monteroisdinero

      Makes Montero coming up in June an even smarter proposition. Best way to counteract an overpaid, aged right handed power hitter is to replace that production with an inexpensive right handed power hitter making 500K a year for the next 5 years…

      Hopefully we will have a smooth transition and yes, I know, Montero has not had a major league ab yet but I am optimistic :-)

      • Ryan

        the next 3 years you mean.. if all goes well he’ll be making more money in arbitration. Here’s to hoping Montero is awarded record-breaking salaries throughout his arbitration years!

    • RL

      27 mill for a player putting up 3 WAR is a recipe for failure.

      This is a recipe for failure if you don’t have the Yankees deep pockets. If he turns into that player within the next 3 years and Jeter and Teix also decline, it certainly hurts. If Jeter & Teix raise thei production to near career norms, it hurts less and can be overcome with money. While I’d hate to have to rely on the production of others to compensate for a declining ARod, the Yankees are capable of overcoming that obstacle better than any other team..

    • MattG

      That was the 5th best 3B in the AL East, as in The Worst 3B in the division.

      Hard to imagine Rodriguez could ever be worse than Mark Reynolds.

  • Camilo Gerardo

    If he plays a whole season, no way is 40-45 dingers out of the question, no

  • Jobu The Voodoo Troll

    I am hoping that the hip was really holding him back and he recovers this year and next to at least get himself into the MVP conversation. Then he embarks on a gradual three year decline where he is still above average. Finally, I cannot see anything (even when hoping) that says this will not be a disaster for the final two years, but at least it would only be two years of total loss.

    • RL

      Not sure the last 2 will be a total disaster. There should be plenty of DH ABs for him then and while it’s extremely unlikely he’ll earn what his contract will pay him, we all (well, the reasonable among us, not Hank) knew that would be the case. I could see him still being able to hit 20-25 HRs per season at that age and hopefully will still manage to drive in 100+ runs. (hoping!!)

    • danimal

      Sounds like Alex came in with a KFC bucket instead of the real thing Mr. Jobu.

      Maybe with your perfect future projections you can tell me this week’s lottery numbers, too.

      There is no way you could predict what he’s going to do into his final 2 contract years. Bonds was still crushing the ball even when he was forced out of baseball. Who says ARod won’t rake into his 40’s?

  • MattG

    Rodriguez’s ISO by month in 2010:

    April: .190
    May: .204
    June: .220
    July: .219
    August: .302
    Sep/Oct: .305

    What does it mean? By itself, little, but in the context of returning from injury that would impact power, it might mean a lot.

    There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that would support Rodriguez returning to a .250-.300 ISO level. I would say .280/.370/.550 is easy to fathom.

    • YankeesJunkie

      I don’t think anyone would be surprised because he is A-Rod, however if it is closer .250 that would still be awesome. If it is .300 then the Yankees offense will be just that much better than everyone else.

  • OldYanksFan

    Aaron averaged 40 HRs in his age 35-39 years, so 35 HRs for ARod doesn’t seem crazy. I also think he’s good for a .900+ OPS for 4 or more years.

  • OldYanksFan

    Also, ARod is exactly 150 HRs away from the record.
    Over 7 years, that’s 22 HRs/yr.
    Over 6 years, that’s 25 HRs/yr.
    I think he is seriously motivated.

  • NC Saint

    “the days of 30+ homers are long gone.”

    Was that suppose to be 50+? Since elsewhere you say 40 wouldn’t be a huge surprise (and as written this is insane), I assume this must be a typo…

    • james

      well that line is in the worst case part