- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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If it weren't for all the early-season drama surrounding Derek Jeter's tortured slow start at the plate and, later, his trip to the disabled list that interrupted his chase of 3,000 hits, Alex Rodriguez might have inherited many of the same questions that Jeter had to fend off before now. But consider the baton passed.
Knowing that Rodriguez's imminent return from arthroscopic knee surgery has always been described as a little ahead of schedule, there was no reason for alarm when Rodriguez sat down after his second rehab game Wednesday with the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate and said he would rejoin the Yankees as planned Thursday night but ruled out playing right away.
The parts of the story that were harder to shake were Rodriguez's labored movements on his sore leg in those games, and his joking response when asked Wednesday to rate how he feels percentage-wise.
"One hundred percent? I'm about 15 years removed from 100 percent," A-Rod laughed.
All of which makes the most pressing question around A-Rod not so much when he'll return.
It's this: Which A-Rod will the Yankees get back?
Jeter, who is 13 months older than Rodriguez, has batted around .326 since his return from a pulled calf muscle that put him on the disabled list. He looks refreshed and reborn. But what's been even more striking is how Jeter has been driving the ball again. The barking about other stats, like how many ground balls he hits or double plays he pounds into isn't mentioned much anymore. For now, neither is dropping Jeter out of the No. 1 or No. 2 spot in the order.
When Rodriguez underwent surgery for a torn meniscus 3½ weeks ago, he was hitting .295, but many of his other numbers were down across the board. Most glaring of all, Rodriguez was having trouble hitting for power. His slugging percentage was 84 points below his career average. He's likely headed to his first sub-30 home run, sub-100 run season since 1997, when he was a 21-year-old Seattle Mariner.
When he finally confessed how much his knee was bothering him and opted to have it fixed, the knee was blamed for all that. Rodriguez hadn't hit a home run in 22 games when he left on July 7. But if the pattern keeps up once he comes back healthy, some of the same whispers that Jeter heard will start to migrate to him even though they're entirely different players: Is age finally overtaking A-Rod a little? Is this year the clear beginning of the end of Rodriguez's days as one of baseball's premier sluggers? Will Eduardo Nunez be the Yanks' next third baseman rather than shortstop because A-Rod will be the stiff-jointed star who needs a new position like DH, and not Jeter?
A-Rod certainly wouldn't be the first known power hitter to have used steroids to abruptly hit the wall or start succumbing to nagging joint and/or tendon injuries. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa all went through it to varying degrees. But whereas Jeter went eight years between stints on the DL, this list from from Baseball Prospectus vividly shows how much Rodriguez's nicks and aches keep mounting.
As Jeter has shown, everyone will shut up and back off immediately if Rodriguez comes back and rakes.
Yanks manager Joe Girardi has already said Rodriguez will return to his usual cleanup spot in the lineup. And that makes sense. The Yankees are far better with him, even if they've stayed in a neck-and-neck race with Boston for the American League East lead without him. While Rodriguez was gone, Curtis Granderson continued to play like an MVP candidate and Robinson Cano just kept piling up hits until he was back to hitting above .300. The idea of who Rodriguez was once upon a time remains potent. He can still beat you with one swing.
Rodriguez just hasn't been hitting for power as often, a disorienting feeling that he admitted Thursday, "I'm not used to. ... Part of the reason that we had this surgery is because it's important for me to come back and hit home runs, drive in runs and get big hits. It's not to slap the ball all over the place. That's just not my game."
Beyond that? The suggestion that A-Rod no longer looks like a sure thing to get the 137 home runs he needs to pass Bonds for the all-time home run record is a topic for another day. So is how much the Yanks will surely live to regret the length of his extravagant contract.
The Yanks have more pressing problems right now, like making sure all the 30-something guys on their roster hold up for the playoffs, and that their mix-and-match starting pitching rotation somehow continues to get it done, though there seems to be a drama a day with them now. Is time running out on Bartolo Colon's miracle arm? Is rookie Ivan Nova cooling off? If you know how Phil Hughes will finish the season, let Girardi know, too.
Rodriguez looked creaky running the bases and moving around the field during his two-game rehab stay in the minors. The Yanks would probably take it as slow as they are with him even if they weren't also waiting now to see if the cut finger on Freddy Garcia's pitching hand requires Garcia to go on the disabled list.
Someone has to come off the roster before A-Rod returns, so the Yanks can afford to wait a few days. Garcia's problem could make the decision for them. If Garcia isn't the guy who goes to make room for A-Rod, it will probably be another pitcher.
But the more interesting mystery is which A-Rod -- the slugger, or the slipping superstar -- he will be whenever and wherever the Yankees get him back.
Alex Rodriguez will face Derek Jeter-like scrutiny as he battles back from injury.