The return of Alex Rodriguez to the New York Yankees starting lineup is a boon for the offensively challenged squad, but on-field production is merely background noise right now among the sea of Biogenesis, suspension and appeal narratives floating around the baseball world.
Make no mistake: Alex Rodriguez's presence around the Yankees, for however long he's allowed to play, will make the games feel like a sideshow to the circus in and out of the clubhouse.
For a franchise that has specialized in distractions over the years, the Rodriguez drama, enhanced by sports media coverage in 2013, may take on a new, ridiculous life of its own.
Extra media attention will follow the Yankees to cover the awkward Rodriguez fallout over the next few weeks. If the battle here was just between A-Rod and MLB, it would be captivating. Yet, if Rodriguez is to be believed, the notion of the New York Yankees conspiring to keep him away, despite needing him to climb back in the 2013 playoff picture, can make every quote and press conference must-watch television.
With the Rodriguez circus rolling into every town, especially New York, the Yankees play in with him active and participating on their 25-man roster, the former three-time MVP will have to hit enough to validate the distractions for his manager, teammates and organization.
Despite coming off a second hip surgery in four years, don't rule out A-Rod's production doing just that.
Of course, if the Yankees are just looking for an upgrade over their current third base situation, the 38-year-old enigma will almost undoubtedly provide that within his first few plate appearances. For the season, using an overmatched and overwhelmed combination of Kevin Youkilis, Eduardo Nunez, David Adams, Luis Cruz, Jayson Nix, Chris Nelson, Alberto Gonzalez, Brent Lillibridge and, yes, Vernon Wells, the group has combined to hit four home runs and post a .557 OPS.
In other words, A-Rod, with two bad hips and a litany of baggage, can outhit his nine replacements by the upcoming weekend.
His chances of doing that sooner than later are buoyed by the pitching forum in Chicago this week. Rodriguez, one of the most prolific sluggers against left-handed pitching in baseball history (.944 career OPS), will be facing lefties Jose Quintana, Chris Sale and Hector Santiago.
While he doesn't have ample career at-bats against any of the three, his presence as a power-hitting right-handed hitter against lefties changes the Yankees lineup immediately.
While A-Rod's return will clearly improve the third base situation in New York, his ability, or whatever is left of it, will impact the entire lineup against left-handed pitching. As a team, from every spot in the lineup, the 2013 Yankees have posted a .586 OPS against left-handed pitching.
To put that in perspective, Pete Kozma, St. Louis' light-hitting shortstop, owns a .577 OPS this season. Nine Pete Kozma's isn't exactly intimidating for AL East lefties such as David Price, Matt Moore, Jon Lester and Wei-Yin Chen.
Furthermore, before succumbing to a broken hand via an errant Felix Hernandez pitch in July of 2012, Rodriguez was still hitting at an above-average clip. From Opening Day in 2012 through July, A-Rod hit 15 home runs and posted an .806 OPS in 400 plate appearances. If those numbers were inserted into the 2013 leaderboards, Rodriguez would rank seventh among all qualified third baseman in home runs and OPS.
While recovery from a second hip surgery, coupled with how inept A-Rod's September and October were last year, cast doubt on his ability to even return to early 2012 form, his swing and power did translate in recent rehab assignments. On Friday evening, during a Double-A contest in Trenton, N.J., A-Rod pulled a home run to left field with power, balance and torque that can carry over to Major League Baseball action beginning tonight in Chicago.
If the Yankees are going to make a run at the AL East, or, more likely, stay in the wild-card race, they'll need a healthy and productive Rodriguez. To rally their season amidst the distraction that their third baseman will cause in each clubhouse, they'll need him to at least be the player he was from April-July of 2012.
If the Yankees were a different franchise or if Rodriguez were new to the team, perhaps his mere presence would be a distraction worsened by the saga surrounding him. Yet, his 2013 season, starting tonight in Chicago, represents a decade of baseball in pinstripes by the sport's most polarizing figure.
Distractions are inevitable, but, usually, the Yankees do a decent job of blocking them out. The more Rodriguez hits, the less the questions about his past will dominate conversation.
Expect the former star to rise to the occasion, hitting just enough to satisfy the Yankees' need for production and his clubhouse's need for sanity.
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