- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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For those of you seeking a good omen for the New York Yankees' upcoming season, consider this: The last time they headed into a season not counting on much of a contribution from Alex Rodriguez, they won the World Series.
But aside from the sobering reality that for the second time in four years, A-Rod will begin a season recovering from major hip surgery, the 2013 Yankees have little in common with the 2009 Yankees.
And it was heading into a new ballpark, with essentially a new team, one that had the resolve and stamina to make come-from-behind victories the hallmark of its season.
You could never count those Yankees out, and there were dozens of postgame cream pies to prove it.
This year, the Yankees are coming off a winter of austerity, by their standards, and head into a ballpark that last season seemed to have run out of energy, that has has seen declining attendance -- and increased hostility from is fans -- over the past two seasons, with an aging team that had no second run in it. Unlike 2009, when the Yankees fell behind last season, it was a good time to try to beat the traffic home.
There are a lot of questions hanging over the 2013 Yankees, and for the next 20 days, until the day pitchers and catchers report to the club's spring training facility in Tampa, we will explore one major issue that could affect the outcome of the season.
And where better to start than at third base, with the $275 million third baseman, from whence all things good and bad involving the Yankees seem to originate these days?
According to the club, and especially, according to his surgeon, A-Rod will be as good as new -- no, he will be even better than he has been over the past four seasons -- when he returns from surgery to repair a torn labrum and impingement in his left hip sometime after the All-Star break.
Maybe he will be. Considering his career-long body of work, it is hard to imagine Alex Rodriguez no longer has the potential to be a dangerous hitter once again.
But it requires quite a suspension of disbelief to buy into the theory that the A-Rod who will return to the Yankees' lineup in the second half of the season is capable of being even as good as he was in 2009.
For starters, you have to believe that at 38 years old -- he will hit that milestone on July 27 -- and coming off a second hip surgery, A-Rod's body is still up to the task of playing at a high level on a daily basis.
You have to believe that the hip problem -- which Rodriguez never complained of, which was described by GM Brian Cashman as "asymptomatic" and which was mistakenly believed by the player himself to be in the other hip, the right one repaired in 2009 -- was the reason for his subpar 2012 season (.272, 18 HRs and 57 RBIs) and his horrific postseason in which he managed all of three singles in 25 at-bats (.120), was regularly pinch-hit for and was benched for three of his team's most important playoff games.
You have to believe the surgeon, Bryan Kelly, when he says A-Rod's hip problems -- and the decline that has come with them -- were not due to steroids but to some congenital deformity of the hip socket, in spite of which he was able to hit more than 50 home runs in a season four times and amass nearly 650 dingers in 19 seasons.
You have to accept his analysis that overcompensation for this problem robbed him of his ability to turn on a ball and drive it, which does not explain why he struck out 12 times in 25 at-bats in the postseason.
Most of all, you have to believe that in spite of all that, he is still capable of being a better hitter than what the record shows for his past three seasons as a Yankee, in which he has averaged 21 home runs, 81 RBIs and hit .272. Except for the batting average, the Yankees would be overjoyed if he could duplicate those power numbers, since they are skewed by a good 2010 season.
It's an awful lot to swallow, and best taken in small bites.
In his place, the Yankees signed Kevin Youkilis, a feisty player who was hated while a member of the Boston Red Sox but can hardly be more unpopular with Yankees fans than A-Rod was by the end of last season.
Even in Youk's best season -- probably 2008, when he batted .312, hit a career-high 29 homers and drove in 115 runs -- he was no A-Rod, not even the diminished A-Rod of 2009 and 2010.
But he certainly seems capable of putting up the kind of numbers A-Rod put up last year and the year before while playing a serviceable third base.
The Yankees no longer depend upon Alex Rodriguez for the big hit, nor do they delude themselves with the fantasy that another great A-Rod year is just a full, healthy season away.
These days, the Yankees expect little from Alex Rodriguez and know that whatever they do get will be a bonus.
As the 2009 season reminds us, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
A-Rod's return to form after surgery is an awful lot to swallow.