The Yankees’ moves of the past week or so have made the direction in which they’re heading clear. They’re rebuilding, no matter how they spin it, and the future isn’t now. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and other veterans are still hanging around, but they will not be there the next time the Yankees are competing.
Mark Teixeira is still playing first base most days because, well, he has to. Sabathia is still taking his turn in the rotation. Alex Rodriguez, however, is no longer an every day player. He’ll be used as a pinch hitter here and there and start sometimes, but when you’re the DH there are always guys who can take your place. He’s four homers shy of 700 for his career and will likely hang around that long, but the New York Daily News is reporting today that the Yankees could release him before the end of the season. Buster Olney of ESPN is hearing many of the same things.
Unlike past stories about A-Rod leaving the Yankees, this isn’t overheated political stuff coming from people with axes to grind. There’s really no reason for anyone to grind an axe. The Yankees accepted over a year ago that they’re not getting out of their obligation to pay Rodriguez. Rodriguez, for his part, has been a model citizen and, unexpectedly, showed the world in the past year that his teammates actually like him and that he’s a pretty good guy in the clubhouse, at least compared to how things were several years ago. Many have suggested that he could even coach when he’s done playing. The days of Evil A-Rod are over for everyone except desperate columnists up against deadline. Now it’s just about the baseball and the roster spot.
The baseball is going poorly for A-Rod, obviously, thereby putting that roster spot in jeopardy. He’s hitting .205/.253/.358 which doesn’t play for anyone, let alone a guy with no defensive value anymore. At some point soon, the Yankees are probably going to want to take a look at a younger player. If they just want to look at his bat, they may want him to take A-Rod’s diminishing available hacks. If they want to check out his glove, they may want to shift someone into the DH spot to make room. There are only 25 slots on the roster until the end of August and no matter what happens, A-Rod is the most obvious odd man out.
As Olney notes, the Yankees could handle this one of two ways: tell A-Rod, gently, what he probably already knows: he’s not going to play much. Tell him that if he wants to, he can ride pine or, possibly, hit the disabled list with some non-specific old man injury for a chunk of August, hang around in September once the rosters expand and then end the season in uniform. Or tell him that they plan to release him at the end of the season and, if he’d like to go home now, they can make that happen and it may be better for the club. The idea of him playing in 2017 right now is hard to get one’s mind around. His 2015 resurgence was a nice story but he’s really got nothing left at all.
I suspect — and sort of hope — that he stays on the roster for the year and, at some point in September, some sort of announcement is made about him retiring or taking some role with the club after the season. He is obviously still owed money for 2017 and he doesn’t owe the Yankees any sort of favor in the form of getting them off the hook financially, but that’s between them. For fans who still like A-Rod and care about such things, it’d just be nice to see him hang it up at least partially on his terms, and with a nice wave to an early autumn crowd at Yankee Stadium. That’d be far preferable to a January press release or a spring training press conference in Tampa following a roster cutdown.
Whatever does happen, it’s amazing that the conversation we’re having about the end of Alex Rodriguez’s career is so . . . conventional. That it’s following, more or less, the same form every other great athlete’s swan song takes. Three or four years ago the smart bet would’ve been that A-Rod would end his baseball playing days as Public Enemy Number One, with people either shouting epithets of wearing “Free A-Rod!” shirts. Or that he’d, I dunno, be beamed into the heavens by some alien ship because what the hell else in his career had ever looked normal?
But now, in 2016, he’s just a 41-year-old ballplayer who, while occasionally being able to deposit a mistake pitch into the seats, can’t really play the game anymore. He’s like the thousands of other players who couldn’t defeat time and the small handful of all-time greats who defeated it for longer than most thought but eventually succumbed.
Truly happy endings are rare in sports. At the most we get bittersweet. Here’s hoping that the ending of Alex Rodriguez’s career has at least some sweetness to it.
UPDATE: A-Rod was asked today about the possibility of being released. He’s pretty zen about it.