Yanks prepared to withstand A-Rod's absence
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- You're wondering if the payroll limitations, age and injuries finally have caught up with the Bronx Bombers. RIP, Yankees? You look around the American League East and see the Blue Jays and Red Sox getting better. You know the Rays will be competitive. You were pretty darn impressed by the Orioles in 2012.
Now, there's news that Alex Rodriguez could miss half the 2013 season. Derek Jeter? Who knows how quickly that broken left ankle will heal? Catcher Russell Martin is gone, and right fielder Nick Swisher could be following him out the door.
Meanwhile, management says it's going to be under the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014. With almost $170 million already on the books for '13 before the club's arbitration-eligible players are signed, there doesn't appear to be a lot of cash lying around for repair work.
OK, let's all take a deep breath. The Yanks are going to be competitive. Let's go over that one more time.
The Yankees are still good enough to win the AL East. The Rays and Blue Jays could be better than the Bronx Bombers right now, but we're barely into December.
Besides that, the Yanks still have a solid rotation and a very good bullpen. They've still got infielders Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano in the middle of the lineup.
Yes, there are holes, but one thing we learned last season is teams that can pitch and play defense will be in contention. The Rays have put together a nice little run doing things that way.
Is it perfect? No, it's not.
Still, if Rodriguez can return by the All-Star break and Jeter has another productive season left in him, the Yankees can make some October noise.
At least now, the Yanks know what they're dealing with regarding A-Rod. There's at least a glimmer of hope he can still be a productive player. It's nothing more than a glimmer, and it's clouded in uncertainty. Still, it's something.
Six weeks ago, there was almost no reason to think A-Rod had anything left in the tank, and that assessment didn't come just at the end of a postseason in which he batted .120 and was benched for the final two games of an AL Championship Series sweep at the hands of the Tigers.
He'd been overmatched by right-handed pitching for much of the regular season. His slugging percentage against all pitching declined for a fifth straight season, and among all Major League third basemen, he was 15th in home runs, 24th in doubles, 10th in walks and seventh in on-base percentage. In other words, he was above average, barely.
To think A-Rod could still be an impact player required a significant leap of faith. So the news that he will undergo surgery to repair a torn labrum and other issues in his left hip and miss perhaps half the 2013 season is something tangible to deal with.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman called the problems "fixable," and he seemed confident of getting some more good years out of Rodriguez. Doctors did a similar procedure on A-Rod's right hip in 2008, and when he returned in 2009, he drove in 100 runs in 124 games and batted .365 in the postseason, leading the Yanks to their 27th championship.
If he did it once, why can't he do it again? Does it make sense that one of the hardest-working, most conscientious and productive players of our time would suddenly be toast at 37?
This isn't about performance-enhancing drugs, either. Alex Rodriguez didn't build a 19-year career simply on steroids, even though there are justifiable questions about whether steroid use contributed to both hips breaking down. If performance-enhancing drugs enhanced A-Rod's productivity, they didn't contribute to a skill set that was off the charts.
Cashman emphasized he wouldn't overreact to Rodriguez's absence. He said he'd known about the problem for several weeks and had been sifting through his options.
The Yankees are also long since past the point of seeing A-Rod as a superstar. In describing what Rodriguez can still be, Cashman used a precise choice of words.
"Above average at that position."
So he won't be Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre or Evan Longoria. But if he can get on base 35 percent of the time, if he can hold his own against right-handed pitching, the Yanks would breathe a sigh of relief.
They'd be good enough to win a championship, too. If they can stay competitive for the three months he's out, if they can get a healthy Rodriguez back, if he can regain his confidence, the Yankees can end next season back in a familiar place.
It's silly to paint a serious surgical procedure as good news. It's important to understand there are risks. But the Yankees also gained some understanding of why A-Rod's 2012 season may have ended the way it did.
As former manager Joe Torre said during the Yankees' run of four championships from 1996-2000, "Everything we do here is about the pitching." The Yanks have pitching. Yes, still. As long as CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are performing at a high level, it would be silly to overlook them.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.