By Joel Sherman
We ARE getting closer to the end of the Derek Jeter Era and that can only mean one thing — we are moving ever closer to talking about Alex Rodriguez again.
As soon as this season and Jeter’s career ends, you know who becomes an eligible player and part of the Yankees’ roster? Yep. Him.
Rodriguez and good sense do not often share a sentence, but he wisely stayed mostly in the shadows this season. After all, at this point, he appears interested in protecting two items: 1) One last chance to play and 2) the $61 million still owed on his contract from 2015 to 2017.
And after all the bad outside advice and whatever inner voice he heeded, Rodriguez realized less of him is more. He didn’t go all J.D. Salinger, but — importantly for his immediate future — he also did not do anything further to antagonize an outgoing commissioner, an incoming commissioner or the Yankees.
Thus, he did not imperil the agreement that returns him to being a major league player in, of all things, good standing at the conclusion of the World Series.
And at that point, you know what A-Rod becomes yet again — fascinating.
One of the reasons is because he becomes, instantly, the Yankees’ 800-pound gorilla. They have to assemble a roster for next season, they are due to pay A-Rod $21 million and they can have little idea how much or at what level this version of Rodriguez could play.
He is 39. He has had two major hip surgeries. He has missed all of the 2014 season and played just 44 major league games in 2013. At this point it is probably not safe to assume Rodriguez is clean, but if he is, can he perform adequately without illegal performance enhancers?
And what makes this trickier for the Yankees is they will have to go forward with him occupying a spot on the 40-man roster. It is the only way they have any chance to receive insurance money on that $61 million they still owe him — if he proves unable to play at some point next spring training or during the season. Thus, they just can’t cut him now, as much as they likely have the urge.
So think about the tightrope the Yankees are about to walk — they have to construct a roster with A-Rod, but with every expectation they will receive zero from him. Conversely, they cannot eliminate any role for him to perform on the chance he can still be a productive player and they can get some return on their money — and let’s not forget that if Rodriguez somehow hits six homers, he gets a $6 million milestone bonus for reaching the 660 of Willie Mays (yet another financial consideration for the organization).
So what to do?
The Yankees, by rule, have been allowed to have their trainers in contact with Rodriguez to monitor his physical health. Heck, by rule, Rodriguez could have worked out in their minor league complex all year, but for appearance’s sake that was avoided.
But it shouldn’t be avoided once the season ends. The Yankees need to bring him in, get some idea what he looks like and what he is thinking. If Rodriguez really wants to play baseball and is in the mood to help the Yankees, the team should suggest he get a first baseman’s mitt and begin working out at the position before their eyes in October, just to get some indication of where he is as a baseball player and physical specimen before making offseason plans.
The idea would be to have A-Rod report to camp in February as a third baseman/first baseman/DH. It would allow him to better preserve his body away from the demands of third. It would potentially give manager Joe Girardi a first-base option safety net for the brittle Mark Teixeira. Perhaps the Yankees re-sign Chase Headley as a primary third baseman and backup first baseman and have A-Rod as the backup at both spots plus a regular DH. Are there 350 to 400 good at-bats still in his body for that?
As bad as Rodriguez often looked last year in those 44 games, he had a .771 OPS, which would rank him second on these Yankees (minimum 150 plate appearances) — just behind Jacoby Ellsbury and just ahead of Brett Gardner.
Again, who knows if he did that clean or if he has anything left after missing 2014 and seeing his 39th birthday come and go. But the Yankees are paying him for 2015 (actually to 2017) and they are compelled to try to get something for their money. The determination of who A-Rod is needs to start sooner rather than later — later being February.
We are less than three weeks away from this strange reality — Derek Jeter is no longer a Yankee, Alex Rodriguez is once more.
Guess who is about to become The Most Interesting Man in the Baseball World again?