Commentary

Yankees can't drop A-Rod in lineup

If Bombers drop Alex Rodriguez, history suggests an unhappy playoff ending

Updated: October 9, 2012, 11:48 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

If Joe Girardi is going to drop Alex Rodriguez to the bottom of his batting order, he might as well drop-kick him to the bench as a defensive replacement for Eduardo Nunez for the remainder of the Yankees' playoff run.

Because that's about how useful he would be.

From what we know of A-Rod, the Yankees' batting order and his history of performance when demoted in it, I have the feeling this move, suddenly so popular among panicked Yankees fans, would not end well.

And I get the feeling Girardi knows it, too, judging from the way he has resisted making it all season and the way he answered the renewed calls for it in the wake of the Yankees' 3-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in Game 2 of the ALDS.

He started out with all the obligatory yada-yada-yada: "Well, I mean, I think that we're going to do whatever it takes to win this three-game series. Nothing that we do will be something that is just a knee-jerk reaction. You know, we talk about different things, and whether it's a pitching change or pitching situations. We know the great thing about this is I have a great group of guys that's very unselfish and they really want to win. And that's what we're going to do -- what we think is best to win."

And then the real story came out: "So, I mean, yeah, of course you have to take in a lot of factors. Sometimes it's just not as easy as just writing a name or taking a guy out, a pitcher out. You have to think about the emotional part. You always have to think about that as a manager." When Joe Girardi talks about the emotional part of making his lineup card, he is talking about Alex Rodriguez.

Obviously, the manager wasn't particularly concerned about Curtis Granderson's emotions when he dropped his 43-HR slugger to eighth for Game 2. He didn't consult with Mark Teixeira before, in the space of 24 hours, batting him cleanup one night and sixth the next. And he's had no problem about moving Ichiro Suzuki all over the batting order without calling in the mental-health assistance team.

But we know A-Rod identifies himself as a middle-of-the-order hitter, a No. 3 or No. 4, because that has been where he's hit all of his career, and -- aside from his rookie season -- with the exception Joe Torre's one-day banishment to the purgatory of the No. 8 slot, his status as a premier hitter in any lineup has never been seriously questioned before this season.

[+] EnlargeArod
AP Photo/Nick WassThe time to drop struggling slugger Alex Rodriguez from his spot in the batting order has passed.

The truth is Alex Rodriguez has been neither a No. 3 nor a No. 4 hitter this season, nor, you could make the case, for either of his previous two.

And if Joe Girardi was going to move him out, he should have done it a long time ago. To do it now, with the Yankees just two losses away from a second straight first-round playoff KO, would do more than just send a message to his team that Girardi was panicking.

It would also cost him A-Rod as a productive player for him for the rest of the series, and for who knows how long afterward.

This does not mean A-Rod is a bad hitter; far from it. But he is no longer the kind of hitter you stick in the middle of any batting order. He hasn't hit a home run since Sept. 14. His slugging average for the season was .430, lower than every Yankee regular not named Derek Jeter or Russell Martin. Even Ichiro, a classic slap hitter, had a higher slugging percentage (.454).

What A-Rod is now is a singles hitter, and he hit the ball as well as any Yankee in the lineup Monday night. In fact, if not for Robert Andino's excellent catch of A-Rod's first-inning liner, which looked like an RBI single off the bat but turned into a devastating double play, the outcome of the game might have been very different and we probably wouldn't be having this discussion now.

And yes, he probably is a better fit lower in the lineup. But now is hardly the time to do it.

I have been asking Girardi since spring training 2011 if he still considered A-Rod a cleanup hitter by more than reputation alone and he has always said yes, although his reasons were never particularly good ones.

Boiled down, they usually amounted to, "Because I said so."

And now, because of his reluctance to do what he should have done at the beginning of this season and probably as far back as last season, Girardi is now stuck with A-Rod smack in the middle of his lineup.

Still, the manager has tacitly acknowledged all season that the A-Rod he has now is not the A-Rod the Yankees traded for in 2004, or even the one they saw as recently as two years ago.

You can hear it in his strident defenses of A-Rod's "good at-bats," his fervent belief that "Al is ready to break out" and, most tellingly, his seeming satisfaction with small contributions, such as the way he complimented Rodriguez for drawing a walk in Game 1, in which A-Rod also struck out three times.

Obviously, the bar on the Yankees' expectations for A-Rod has been dropped. It is now about at the level of his shoe tops.

That's where his self-esteem and confidence will be, too, if Girardi decides to Torre him and drop him to sixth or seventh or, gulp, eighth for Wednesday night's Game 3. And whether you care about those things or not -- and there's no reason why fans should -- you must recognize that whatever production you can still get out of A-Rod will drop with the move.

We saw it happen in 2006 -- hitting eighth in Torre's lineup, Rodriguez went 0-for-3, seeing all of nine pitches in three at-bats, in a lifeless 8-3 loss that ended the Yankees' October.

And although A-Rod rebounded to have an MVP 2007 season, the relationship with Torre never healed and the trust was never restored. Rodriguez is going to be around five more years, and so maybe is Girardi. Is it worth the collateral damage for a one- or two-game fix that probably won't make a difference?

The Yankees didn't lose Game 2 because Alex Rodriguez was hitting third in their lineup. They lost because nobody, from 1 to 9, was able to hit at all when they needed to most.

That has been a recurrent problem all season long and into the postseason, because the Yankees were playing the exact same game in Sunday's series opener before Orioles closer Jim Johnson came on to (temporarily) cure their RISP failures.

Rodriguez is hardly the only Yankee who has failed to come through in the clutch this series, or this season.

To make him the scapegoat for a disappointing playoff run is easy, but wrong. All season long, the Yankees, and Girardi, haven't had the guts to make the move that needed to be made.

To hold him accountable for failure now in a job he has not been qualified to perform for a long time would not only be ill-timed, but ill-fated.

And a sure sign of panic.

That's another emotional part of this equation that, so far, Girardi has resisted giving in to.

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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