TAMPA, Fla. -- There is no doubt that the best team the New York Yankees can put on the field includes Alex Rodriguez at third base, and the best batting order Joe Girardi can send out includes Alex Rodriguez in the lineup.
But is it still a given that the best Yankees lineup is built around Alex Rodriguez as its cleanup hitter?
Girardi says he thinks so. Rodriguez says he hopes so. Robinson Cano says he doesn't care.
And as of today, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012, the Yankees' Opening Day lineup will have Cano batting third, Mark Teixeira batting fifth -- and Alex Rodriguez batting where he has for virtually every one of his nearly 5,000 plate appearances as a Yankee: No. 4.
That seems to be based on two criteria: Reputation. And expectation.
Anyone who has hit 629 career home runs, knocked in nearly 1,900 runs, won three MVPs and led the league in jacks five times has got to be a cleanup hitter, right?
For Girardi, it's a matter of habit, for Rodriguez, a matter of ego, but both agree on who the No. 4 hitter in the Yankees' lineup should be.
"Whatever the manager wants to do is exactly what I'll do," Rodriguez said on Saturday. "With that said, I take enormous pride in hitting fourth. I'm going to make it as difficult as possible for Joe to take me out of that position."
"I envision him as a cleanup hitter," Girardi said. "And I think he did a pretty good job for us until he got hurt last year. And I imagine he's going to be the guy [he was] before he got hurt."
The operative word there is "imagine," because based upon his past three injury-plagued seasons, and the fact that on July 27 he will turn 37 years old, the imagination is the only place where the slugger formerly known as A-Rod still resides.
Now, two months removed from Orthokine therapy -- a series of injections of his own blood withdrawn from his body, spun in a centrifuge and reinjected into his knee and shoulder that was done in Germany in December -- Rodriguez claims to be 100 percent healthy once again.
But we've heard that before -- remember his great numbers last spring? -- only to see Rodriguez begin acting his age again once the season got into full swing.
The fact is, the Yankees have at least two hitters better qualified for the four-hole than Alex Rodriguez. One of them is Curtis Granderson, the most feared and productive bat on the club last season, and the other is Robinson Cano, who is probably the team's best all-around hitter.
But for some reason, Girardi intends to waste his 41-home-run hitter in the two-hole again, and, employing conventional baseball wisdom, plans to move Cano up to third in place of Mark Teixeira.
Wouldn't it work out better for Rodriguez to hit third, Cano fourth, and maybe Granderson fifth?
For one thing, it would give the lineup the left-right-left balance that Girardi values so highly.
For another, it would move Granderson into the heart of the order, where his power could be put to better use.
For a third, it would put Cano back into the lineup slot where he performed best last year: In 164 plate appearances filling in at cleanup for the injured Rodriguez, Cano posted his highest batting average (.315), on-base percentage (.364) and slugging percentage (.521).
And what's more, it might even help Rodriguez. With the threat of Cano hitting behind him, A-Rod might get some better pitches to hit as opposing pitchers try to avoid facing Cano.
Right now, the opposite is likely to happen, with more clubs pitching around Cano to get to A-Rod, who hit just 16 homers in 99 games last season. And he was especially feeble against left-handed pitching, a two-year puzzle that has yet to be solved.
After hitting a shockingly weak .217 against them in 2010, Rodriguez brought his batting average up to .277 against lefties in 2011 but still managed just two homers -- in 104 plate appearances -- against left-handed pitching, and posted a slugging percentage (.383) that would be more suited to Brett Gardner.
When I asked Rodriguez about a possible lineup shift during Saturday's news conference, he lapsed into generic statesmanlike oratory: "We have 1-2-3 hitters that are going to be very productive. They all run above average, and whoever hits in the fourth and fifth spots is going to have an opportunity to do great damage and clean up. I look forward to that great challenge."
But then, revealingly, he tossed in this aside: "Don't give him any ideas."
He meant Girardi, of course.
Rodriguez does not want the lineup change because to accept it would be to accept a whole basket of reality no athlete would like to face: the realities of aging, of declining skills, of being passed over by younger, hungrier, more talented players.
He needn't worry. Girardi does not seem inclined to rattle the cage the way his predecessor Joe Torre did when he dropped Rodriguez to eighth in his lineup for a 2006 playoff game against the Tigers, a move that was meant to humiliate A-Rod as much as jump-start the lineup.
But there's no shame in hitting third -- traditionally, it's an honor reserved for the team's best hitter -- and while no one even makes the pretense that Alex Rodriguez is the Yankees' best hitter anymore, such a move might make him a better hitter than he has been for the past couple of years.
And in the process, the Yankees a better team.
At first, the change might feel to Rodriguez like a slap in the face, but over the long run, it might turn out to be a more potent shot in the arm than anything he got in Germany.