Commentary

A-Rod injury shouldn't hurt Yankees

If Yankees have proven anything this year, it's that they can overcome injuries

Updated: July 26, 2012, 11:57 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

To the already lengthy list of New York Yankees out for all or significant parts of the 2012 season, add one more name: Alex Rodriguez.

Ho-hum.

That's not meant as a slap against A-Rod, but as a pat on the back to his team.

Already this season the Yankees have lost, in order, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner, Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Andy Pettitte.

Every one of them but Pettitte remains out, and Pettitte probably won't be back until sometime in September.

Still, the Yankees have amassed the best record in baseball and a seven-game lead in the AL East race.

What happened to A-Rod on Tuesday night in Seattle was a terrible thing for him -- he clearly was in a lot of physical pain when he got hit by the pitch and in a lot of emotional pain talking about it afterward -- but hardly a disaster for the Yankees.

At the moment, they are not playing well, losing 5 of 7 games on their just-concluded West Coast trip, but until proven otherwise, that can safely be attributed to the cyclical nature of baseball that assures even the best teams will at some point go through losing streaks in which they look like garbage.

The more important yardstick by which to judge a team is not six games of subpar play, but nearly 100 games in which they have maintained a consistently high level of play despite suffering losses that might well cripple other teams. To their credit, not once have the Yankees used injuries as an excuse to whine or, more importantly, to stop winning.

And suffice it to say any team that can lose a Rivera and still convert 27 out of 30 save opportunities, 25 of them by Rafael Soriano, can certainly weather the loss of A-Rod.

Because let's face it, this isn't the A-Rod of 2007, the MVP who hit 54 home runs and drove in 156 runs, who we're talking about. It's not even the A-Rod of 2010, who hit 30 home runs and knocked in 125 while still supposedly recovering from hip surgery.

We're talking about a guy described by his own general manager as "an above-average player," which is certainly not what the Yankees committed 10 years and $275 million to after that 2007 season, and he is certainly not worth the $114 million the Yankees will owe him for the next five seasons.

Alex Rodriguez
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez suffered a non-displaced fracture in his left hand during Tuesday's loss to the Mariners.

Among major league third baseman, A-Rod's .276 batting average places him ninth among 16 qualifiers. His .358 on-base percentage is fifth, his slugging percentage (.449) puts him ninth, his home run total (15) is fifth-best, his RBI total (44) 12th best. His OPS of .806 is seventh-best.

By just about any numerical measurement, Alex Rodriguez at 37 has become a run-of-the-mill third baseman, or just slightly better.

But you don't need the numbers to tell you that A-Rod was no longer the most feared bat in the Yankees lineup and has not been for a significant length of time. I have stopped counting the number of times opposing managers have walked Robinson Cano -- who is the most feared bat in the lineup -- in front of A-Rod, even if it meant loading the bases in front of a hitter with more grand slams than anyone in baseball history other than Lou Gehrig, with whom he is tied at 23.

Clearly, few teams are afraid to pitch to Rodriguez anymore, and not too many seem worried about him beating them.

And the most alarming thing about that is, until the Felix Hernandez changeup that broke the fifth metacarpal of his left hand Tuesday night, Rodriguez claimed to be healthier this season than he had been in years.

So, taking him at his word, that was not the explanation for his relative lack of production.

And yet, the ball doesn't seem to jump off his bat the way it once did. Many of his seemingly well-struck flies die at the warning track, even in homer-happy Yankees Stadium, and lately he has shown an alarming tendency to not always run out ground balls to the infield, a shocking sight from a player who could always be depended upon to hustle.

You get the sense that although he will never admit it, Alex Rodriguez knows he's not the same player anymore and is as stymied by it as anyone watching him.

That is why his loss at this point in the season, which would have been catastrophic a couple of years ago, is just one more obstacle for this remarkably resilient Yankees team to overcome.

A six-time Gold Glove third baseman for the Oakland Athletics, Eric Chavez is more than an adequate defensive replacement for Rodriguez, and given regular playing time, might turn out to be less of a drop-off at the plate than you might expect.

At .266, Chavez is batting 10 points lower than Rodriguez, and with eight home runs in 156 at-bats, is actually homering with greater frequency than A-Rod, who has connected about once in every 23 at-bats. Chavez's slugging percentage (.468) is 19 points higher than A-Rod's, his on-base percentage (.324) 30 points lower.

If there is one place the Yankees are likely to suffer with Chavez, it is on days a left-hander is starting. Rarely used against lefties, Chavez has just one hit in 13 at-bats (.077), and over the course of his career, he is a .237 hitter against lefties.

Clearly, however, there is no longer that much difference at the plate, or in the field, if the Yankees third baseman is Rodriguez or Chavez. Without A-Rod, the Yankees lose some on-field leadership and a guy who sets a great example with his work ethic, at least in terms of pregame preparation.

But at the plate? Not so much. He hasn't had many big hits this season -- I can only clearly remember one, the grand slam in Atlanta that turned a 4-0 eighth-inning deficit into a rousing 6-4 win -- and the repeated claims by the Yankees that A-Rod was on the verge of turning his season around sounded increasingly hollow and foolish as the season sped toward August.

The big question with Chavez, of course, is whether his injury-prone body and fragile back can stand up to the strain of everyday play, something it has not been able to do since 2006. And with Rodriguez expected to miss eight weeks, or about 50 games, Chavez will need to stay healthy to get the Yankees from here to A-Rod's return.

But it probably won't really matter.

If the Yankees have proven anything over the years, and this year as much as any, it is that there is virtually no one on this roster who is irreplaceable, at least for a couple of months.

Last year, they lost Derek Jeter for 19 games. They went 14-5. This year, Mo went down on May 3. They are 45-27 since and have blown all of three saves in 30 chances.

If they can survive the loss of those two, they can survive a few weeks without Alex Rodriguez.

Especially the 2012 model.

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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