Commentary

A-Rod's days of being great are over

With numbers dwindling and teams lacking fear, Rodriguez is becoming average

Updated: May 23, 2012, 1:16 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- If this is the player Alex Rodriguez is for the rest of his career -- decent hitter, occasional power, solid fielder and reliable baserunner -- he will be comparable to what most teams are sending out on a daily basis, a middle-of-the-road major league third baseman.

But that is not the player the New York Yankees traded for nine years ago, and it is certainly not the player they chose to sign to a contract extension potentially worth $325 million that will not run out for another five seasons.

That does not mean Alex Rodriguez is a bad player -- quite the contrary. But he certainly isn't a great player anymore, not right now anyway, and maybe never will be again.

You certainly can't blame A-Rod for signing the deal or taking the money, and you can't blame him for the sin of being human, a sin that is on almost nightly display at Yankee Stadium and other big league ballparks around the country.

The Yankees, and many of their fans, loved the idea of A-Rod at the time Hank Steinbrenner bought what Scott Boras was selling, and now, they all are just going to have to live with him for the remainder of this season and the five after it.

In that case, this is the time to savor the little things, like the reverse-English single he cued into right field and the base he swiped in the fourth inning, or the heart-stopping last play of the game, when he snagged Alcides Escobar's hot smash behind third base and fired across the diamond to Mark Teixeira, whose long stretch saved the Yankees' 3-2 win over the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.

And it is time to overlook the little things, like when Royals manager Ned Yost decided it was better to walk Robinson Cano to load the bases and to pitch to a hitter with 634 career home runs and 22 career grand slams, the second most in major league history. And Yost turned out to be right, because A-Rod obliged him by striking out.

In fact, it was the second straight night Alex Rodriguez struck out in a key spot with the bases loaded, having done the same on a bad pitch in Monday night's 6-0 loss to the same team.

The name might be the same, and the body might be fit and the face still relatively youthful, but Alex Rodriguez is not the same player other teams not only respected, but feared.

That is why, after the game Monday night, he made sure to mention his advancing on a fly out in the sixth inning, and after Tuesday's win, he was delighted when someone brought up his stolen base in the fourth. Neither play resulted in a run, but A-Rod needed them to feel as if he was, in fact, contributing.

"When you're hitting like crap, sometimes you have to help the team win in other facets,'' he said. "I know what I can do offensively; there's no question in my mind what I'm going to be able to do to help the team win.''

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez is no longer the player who used to put up astronomical power numbers.

On Sunday, he hit a ball as hard as any he has hit all season, and when it left his bat, he thought it was out. But it died at the warning track.

On Monday, with his team struggling for runs, he had a chance to make a huge difference with one swing, but instead took two bad swings at two pitches down around his ankles. He heard the boos that night, and he was hearing them again Tuesday. He is the Yankees' cleanup hitter, and opposing teams are not supposed to be walking anyone, not even Cano, to pitch to him.

"I [was] surprised, because it is Alex Rodriguez, and you see the stats,'' Joe Girardi said of the fifth-inning intentional walk that gave A-Rod a chance to tie Lou Gehrig for the all-time grand slam record. "Geez, it seemed the one year they did it a couple years ago.''

But this is not a couple of years ago, or even last year. A year ago on this date, the numbers were .284, 10 home runs and 26 RBIs. This year, they are .276, 5 and 15.

The story last year was that A-Rod was not healthy, although he had a great spring and his injury woes didn't really begin until mid-June. This year, the story goes that he is healthy, healthier than he has been in years, although to this point last season he had come to the plate just one fewer time and had one fewer at-bat.

Before the game, hitting coach Kevin Long, asked to cite a positive aspect of Alex Rodriguez's 2012 season, could only come up with his health.

"The good thing is, we've been able to put him out there almost every day,'' Long said. "What has he had, one day off? So I think that's a positive. At times last year, we couldn't even put him out there. He was banged up, and his body was not in good shape. He's in good shape and he feels good right now. Let's see what the next 120 games, what he can do, before we make a judgment.''

It is true that at this time last season, many of us, myself included, were inclined to believe that Derek Jeter's subpar 2010 season was about as good as it was going to get from there on in for him.

Jeter rebounded over the second half of last season and is enjoying a terrific 2012, his average currently at .341.

But Jeter's game was never reliant on the long ball, nor was he counted on to produce power and runs in the middle of the Yankees' lineup.

Rodriguez still looks strong and capable at the plate, but for some reason, even when he makes good contact, a lot of times the ball no longer seems to jump off his bat the way it once did.

That could be the result of chronic injuries, to his hip and knee and shoulder, or to the long-term, debilitating effects of his admitted PED use, or simply to the aging process; he will turn 37 on July 27.

Whatever it is, A-Rod's bat has not been the most feared bat in the Yankees' lineup for quite some time, and Yost's decision to walk Cano was more than just a manager's knee-jerk playing of percentages.

"I love that. It makes me really excited,'' Rodriguez said of getting the chance to hit with the bases loaded. "But I don't like striking out in that situation. I'll take my chances. They're going to do that again, and I'm going to be ready. I'm excited for that.''

But neither he nor Long has any logical explanation for his mystifying lack of power, which might not be so mystifying when you realize he has not hit more than 30 home runs in one season since 2008. At this rate, reaching 700 home runs, which seemed like the safest bet since Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, might be a struggle, and as for the all-time home run record, a prime reason the Yankees locked him up for 10 years back in 2007, it now seems as remote as the summit of Mount Everest.

A-Rod keeps insisting his body feels good and that his confidence is unshaken despite the fact that his numbers are down and so is the respect of the guys in the opposing dugout.

He took extra batting practice early Tuesday afternoon and spoke of discovering "a small adjustment'' in his last at-bat of the game Tuesday night, which culminated in another big swing and another routine fly, this one caught at the edge of the warning track in left.

"I'm going to hit; you don't have to worry about that,'' he said. "I feel like I'm about to go off. When it's all said and done, my home runs and RBI will be there.''

He might be the only one left at Yankee Stadium who still truly believes that.

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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