Watching Alex Rodriguez get pinch-hit for on consecutive days and then benched for a clinching game was obviously an odd sensation for a baseball fan. It’s hard to think of the guy who has hit 647 home runs and who was in 1996 and 2000 and 2007 about as good as anyone ever as the kind of guy you bench when you need a home run. For that matter, I’m not even sure — no matter how bad A-Rod has looked that it was the right strategic move for the Yankees (though the Raul Ibanez pinch-hit certainly looks good). Still I think it leads to a larger point.
A-Rod is, at this point, a pretty good player. That’s it. He’s a medium-average third baseman with a bit of power, mostly of it home. This is what he has been for three years now. He’s hitting .272 over that time. He’s averaging 21 homers a year over that time. He’s playing OK defense over there at third base, sometimes spectacular, sometimes below average. His name might be Alex Rodriguez, but this is not the A-Rod that we have watched for 15 years. He’s a touch of Doug DeCinces, a bit of Tim Wallach, a dash of Corey Koskie, a pinch of Melvin Mora.
I don’t mean that in a negative way — those were all good players, and this is A-Rod in his late 30s. For him to still be a good third baseman at 36 years old, well, George Brett couldn’t do it — he moved to first. Eddie Mathews couldn’t do it — he was a part-time player after 35. Cal Ripken tumbled dramatically at 36 and kept tumbling, and Brooks Robinson, though he still played amazing third base for a while, lost his power in his late 30s. Well, these aren’t the exceptions. They are the rules. You could argue that the only third baseman who was ever really great after 35 was Mike Schmidt — at 36, he led the league in homers and RBIs and slugging. But even Schmidt was pretty well done at 38.
The point is that somewhat against the odds, A-Rod is still a pretty good player as he gets up into his late 30s. There’s no telling how long even that will last, but it should probably be clear at this point that he is unlikely to become much MORE than a pretty good player from here on in.
I think the Yankees should act accordingly. When it comes to money, the Yankees really have no choice: They have to pay A-Rod like an all-time great player. But they probably should TREAT A-Rod like a pretty good player. That doesn’t necessarily mean pinch-hitting for him or benching him in the biggest games. But it does mean hitting him down in the lineup, it does mean playing him 130 games instead of 150 (something his injuries have forced the Yankees to do anyway), it does mean thinking of him in a whole different way. This means the team. This means the fans. And, perhaps most difficult, this means A-Rod himself.
When Scott Brosius had his big year with the Yankees in 1998, he batted eighth or ninth every day. He hit .300, and he hit 19 homers, and he played good defense. He had a better year than A-Rod has had the last three. But it was more about the expectations and presumptions that made him so valuable. He filled in in right and at first in an emergency, and he pinch-hit a couple of times, he provided some kick at the bottom of the lineup where nobody really expects it. And everybody loved him. He made the All-Star team. He became a postseason hero. He was Scotty Brosius: New York legend
A-Rod has five years left, and if the Yankees could reinvent him — if A-Rod could reinvent himself — as a Scott Brosius type, that would be interesting. A-Rod can still hit the ball out. He can still draw a walk. He can still hold his own on defense — his arm is still strong. He could be a pretty good player, and those guys help the team win games.
Of course, this would not be worth the $114 million still left on A-Rod’s contract, but that money’s spent anyway, and it’s not like the Yankees have a choice. Money won’t make A-Rod young again. It seems to me the Yankees and A-Rod could spend the last few years in an extended version of this playoffs, with every step of A-Rod’s decline being documented by slights and pinch-hitting affronts and small humiliations. Or everyone could just admit that A-Rod will probably never again be more than pretty good, hit him eighth, sit him against the tough righties, and enjoy the good things he does.