Commentary

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees Albatross

Bombers crippled by A-Rod's massive long-term contract, postseason failures

Updated: October 13, 2011, 1:58 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

In attempting to publicly come to grips with what he feels was the premature end of the Yankees' season, manager Joe Girardi invoked the concept of luck, or lack thereof, no fewer than 10 times during a half-hour news conference on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.

Mark Teixeira hit in bad luck, of course. So did Nick Swisher. Unmentioned but certainly not unremembered was the assault of Mother Nature, who dumped enough rain on Game 1 of the ALDS that the Yankees' entire pitching rotation got washed into disarray.

Then, of course, there was Alex Rodriguez.

Girardi can deal in vagaries, justifications, half-truths and full-blown evasions as well as any other manager in baseball, but not even he had the temerity to suggest that A-Rod's horrendous October, which ended with his swinging through a Jose Valverde fastball to end Game 5 as the tying run at the plate, was in any way influenced by the fickle finger of fate.

"You can run that series again, and maybe it comes out different," Girardi said of the Yankees' loss to the Detroit Tigers, who got blown out in two of the five games and won the other three by a total of four runs. "We're a hit away from moving on. That's baseball. We think that a guy is always going to come through because of his name and what he has done."

The implication was that Rodriguez's October (non-)performance was just the natural cycle run by all major league baseball players, any of whom can, and often do, pick the worst possible time to go into a slump.

In truth, Rodriguez was hardly alone in his culpability for the Yankees' first-round playoff exit. There was Teixeira and his .167 series average, and Swisher, who hit .211, and Russell Martin, who hit .176, and even Derek Jeter, who hit just .250 with a team-high eight strikeouts in 24 at-bats.

But of course, A-Rod being A-Rod, it was Rodriguez who found himself at the plate at the moment of truth not once, but twice in the deciding game; two innings before his game-ending strikeout, he came to bat with the bases loaded and one out. He struck out on a changeup from Joaquin (The Band-Aid) Benoit and when, two batters later, Swisher struck out, too, that was pretty much the game.

That made it a nine-series run of October futility for Swisher, whose average in the playoffs is .169. Teixeira has now played in seven playoff series; his average is .207.

And A-Rod, who had a great 2009 postseason, hit just .111 in this one, with six strikeouts, including the two most visible and arguably damaging whiffs of the season.

By the standards set out by team president Randy Levine, reciting the mission statement formulated by The Boss, George M. Steinbrenner III, anything less than success for the Yankees in October is defined as failure.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
AP Photo/Bill KostrounAlex Rodriguez's two whiffs in Game 5 were the most significant outs of the Yankees' season.

In that case, Swisher and Teixeira have essentially known nothing but, and Rodriguez has failed a lot more times than he has succeeded.

This is where the problems come in.

Swisher's contract, as most Yankees fans know, has run its course, and for him to remain a Yankee the club will have to pick up his option for 2012, which will cost them $10.25 million. Conventional wisdom says that Swisher's regular-season numbers -- he rebounded from a slow start to finish at .260-23-85 with a better-than-respectable on-base percentage of .374 -- makes it a no-brainer that the Yankees will pick up that check.

But the wisdom here is anything but conventional, and the knowledge that Swisher has demonstrated time and again that he may not be cut out for October ball may make the Yankees' decision on him anything but automatic.

Not so with Teixeira, who has five years left on his deal at $22.5 million annually and a full no-trade clause. And certainly not so with A-Rod, who thanks to the judgment of co-owner Hank Steinbrenner and team president Randy Levine -- and over the public objections of GM Brian Cashman -- will be a Yankee until 2017 at an average of roughly $24 million per year.

He is truly the elephant in the room, the one immovable object belonging to a franchise that prides itself on being married to nothing but winning. Preferably in October.

At 36 years old, Rodriguez is far from a bad ballplayer. In 99 games, he batted .276, hit 16 home runs and drove in 62 runs, numbers that project to 26 homers and 101 RBIs over a full season.

But after a cascade of injuries reduced his playing time and clearly curtailed his effectiveness, who is to say that Rodriguez is capable of playing anywhere near a full season anymore? And even if he does, do the numbers on the back of his baseball card still justify the numbers on his paycheck?

This becomes an issue this offseason when a player who, by every standard of Yankees success, becomes available on the free-agent market: Jose Alberto Pujols.

In 63 playoff games, Albert Pujols has a batting average of .333 with 14 homers, 42 RBIs, a slugging percentage of .596 and an OPS of 1.030. In 11 of his 14 playoff series, Pujols has hit .300 or better. In three of them, he has hit .500 or better, including the current NLCS between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers, in Game 2 of which he had a home run, three doubles and five RBIs.

Pujols is the October monster Rodriguez is paid to be.

And unless the Yankees find some way out from under the elephant that is weighing down their lineup and their payroll, he will never be that beast for the Yankees.

Yes, I know, Fort Knox would like to print money the way the Yankees print money, with their grotesquely overpriced ballpark and the cash cow that is the YES Network.

But every business has its limit, every payroll has its cap and even the most profligate ownership has a price it will not pay.

It is hard to imagine the Yankees adding another humongous contract on top of the ones they are already committed to with Rodriguez, Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia, who is about to get a raise and perhaps more years on his deal from the Yankees after he exercises his opt-out sometime this winter.

(That will be another colossal mistake, but we'll deal with that on another day.)

And even if it weren't just a question of money, where would you put Pujols? Like Teixeira, he's a first baseman, and as we know, Teixeira isn't going anywhere. You could make him the DH, but that will be A-Rod's job someday, probably sooner rather than later.

The truth is, having Rodriguez on the roster and on the payroll for the next five years effectively ends any chance the Yankees might have had to add the one player in all of baseball who fits their ideal job description.

So when Girardi talks about the role that luck, especially bad luck, played in his team's demise, he might well have been talking about himself.

Instead of getting Albert Pujols, the Yankees get the Albatross.

And Girardi is left trying to offer explanations, justifications and, ultimately, excuses.

Damn the luck!

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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