I’m going to preface this by saying I don’t think the Yankees are good enough to qualify for the postseason. I’m not even sure they’re good enough to finish the year with a winning record at this point. There are just too many soft spots in the lineup and too many question marks in the rotation. They’ve exhausted all of their depth and then some. I see too many things wrong with the team to think they can turn it around after more than three months of mediocrity.
That said, the Yankees are still only four games back of a playoff spot with a little less than two months to play. Nobody wants to run away with this thing, apparently. It’s a daunting task for New York because there are four teams ahead of them fighting for that spot, but it is doable. They’re going to need some help to do it though, they have for weeks, and they got a very unwanted piece of help on Monday night. Alex Rodriguez and all of his baggage returned to the lineup against the White Sox.
In his first game following hip surgery, a quad strain, and a historic suspension, A-Rod went 1-for-4 at the plate with a jam shot bloop single, two deep fly balls, and a strikeout looking. He worked the count well — 17 pitches in four at-bats — which is more than you can say about most of the lineup these days. If this is all that Alex is capable of at this point of his career, he won’t help the Yankees at all. But it was just one game, one big league game after two Double-A rehab games. It doesn’t tell us much of anything.
What we do know is that prior to Monday’s game, the team’s third basemen were hitting a combined .215/.272/.285 (54 OPS+) on the season, by far the worst production at the position in baseball. In fact, they’re being out-homered by Cubs pitchers 5-4. I wish I was making that up. The Yankees also came into Monday hitting a weak .237/.305/.344 (85 OPS+) against left-handers, which is a far bigger problem in the grand scheme of things. It’s one thing to have a really bad spot in the lineup, it’s another when you can’t hit an entire handedness of pitcher.
A-Rod, even at his age with all those injury problems and off-the-field baggage, is going to help with their hot corner and against-lefties problems. It would an upset if he didn’t. Even last year — the worst full season of his career — he managed a 113 OPS+ overall and a 146 OPS+ against southpaws. If A-Rod comes back as 70-75% of the player he was in 2012, he’d still be an upgrade. In a weird kinda way, he’s lucky the bar has been set so low. Expectations are low and that’s probably the best thing he has going for him. If he sucks, he’ll be doing exactly what everyone expected. No one to disappoint, I suppose.
Outside of the potential on-field upgrade, I do think there’s some small value in the distraction Rodriguez creates. He does draw attention and keep it away from others, which means fewer questions for CC Sabathia to answer about his awful season. Fewer questions for Andy Pettitte, who looks to be at the end of the line. Fewer questions about Derek Jeter’s calf and Robinson Cano’s impending free agency and the team’s overall poor play. There is always going to be some kind of hot button issue with the Yankees, the media makes sure of it, and A-Rod is a lightning rod. The more negative attention he takes away from his teammates, the better it is for them.
The Yankees have made it fairly obvious they want nothing to do with A-Rod. The kept him away from the team in Spring Training, kept him away from the team during his rehab, the GM very publicly told him to “shut the f**k up” following a seemingly innocuous tweet, and they pushed back his return from the quad injury as long as possible. I’ve said this before, but I truly believe the Yankees kept him out as long as reasonably possible in hopes he would get suspended and stay away from the club long-term. If Alex didn’t have almost $100M left on his contract, they absolutely would have cut him and gotten rid of the headache. Zero doubt about that whatsoever.
We’ve reached the point of the season where the options to upgrade the team are very limited. The trade deadline has passed and most of the guys stashed in the minors have already gotten an opportunity, so there’s not much available to the team anymore. Replacing the hilariously awful revolving door of third basemen with A-Rod and all of his warts could actually be a significant improvement over the final two months. All he has to do is be a league average hitter — that’s a .253/.317/.398 batting line, so we’re not talking about a miracle here — to be a significant improvement. The Yankees don’t like A-Rod and they don’t want him anywhere near the team, but they also want to qualify for the postseason. Their best chance to do that is with Alex on the field everyday.