A-Rod's season starts in the toilet

New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, left, poses for photographer Nick Laham on photo day during baseball spring training, Monday, Feb. 27, 2012, in Tampa, Fla.
New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, left, poses for photographer Nick Laham on photo day during baseball spring training, Monday, Feb. 27, 2012, in Tampa, Fla. Matt Slocum/AP Photo

TAMPA, Fla. - Alex Rodriguez looks back on the prime of his career like it's some grainy home movie - that's how much time has passed since he was an indestructible 20-something, arguably the game's best right-handed hitter, on a home run sprint that was supposed to make America forget about Barry Bonds and sanitize the all-time record.

Today, A-Rod's life revolves around trying to keep his body young, which he admits has been "frustrating." Truth is, getting old is driving the third baseman crazy. A bad right knee, a creaking left shoulder, a jammed thumb and that torn hip muscle have combined to strip A-Rod of most of his superstar bling.

He's no longer the Yankees' most talented hitter (that's Robinson Cano's domain), nor the most popular (never was, actually, that's Derek Jeter's hook) or the most feared by opposing pitchers (see: Cano). Rodriguez still has his riches, of course _ he'll forever be baseball's Warren Buffett _ and when all else fails him, there's the prestige that comes with batting cleanup in the Bronx.

But Rodriguez isn't long for that job description, not unless he can reverse the downward spiral of his battle with Mother Nature. Going into his age-37 season, A-Rod talks about "staying healthy" as the new Holy Grail _ keeping himself off the disabled list for one full summer. If so, it'll be the first time since 2007.

Can he? Rodriguez spoke passionately about the new exercise regimen that stresses flexibility and range of motion. After years of strengthening programs _ yes, supercharged by steroids _ he's finally paying attention to keeping his muscles long and lean, not unlike a convert to yoga. Even his medical treatment represents a new philosophy: in December, Rodriguez flew to Germany to undergo Platelet Rich Plasma therapy to speed up the healing of the torn meniscus in his right knee.

The idea was hatched by Kobe Bryant, who said PRP made him feel "27 again," according to A-Rod, who says, he, too, felt "great" after the Yankees' first full-squad workout Saturday.

But none of this guarantees Rodriguez will ever return to his former durability. A-Rod confessed, "I took it for granted" while playing 1,114 games in his age 25-through-31 seasons, an average of 159 per. But Rodriguez failed to reach 100 games last year for the first time in his career as a full-time player. Even more tellingly, A-Rod suffered a home run drought that lasted 85 at-bats, the longest of his career, finishing with only 16 on the year.

All of this underscores the Yankees' unease with A-Rod's future, especially as their cleanup hitter. The slugger jokingly begged reporters, "Don't give Joe (Girardi) any ideas" about the lineup, but it's already too late, as Cano, entering his age-29 season and in his prime, is ready to assume the No. 4 spot.

Last year, in fact, Cano did his best work standing in for A-Rod at cleanup, batting .315 with a .364 on-base percentage, better numbers than he put up in the Nos. 3 and 5 spots. Over his career, Cano's OPS and on-base percentage have been maximized at No. 4.

So what's stopping the Yankees from dethroning Rodriguez? Respect and protocol, mostly. Stripping a lifelong No. 4 hitter of his rank is a terrible blow to the ego, and that's true even for a grounded, emotionally balanced veteran. In A-Rod's case, hitting third or fifth, even if it would mean less pressure, would likely contaminate his well of self-confidence, small as it already is. Joe Torre found out the hard way in 2006, when he dropped A-Rod to the eighth spot in Game 4 of the AL Division Series.

Girardi is far more tolerant of Rodriguez than Torre was, still hoping for a way to keep the lineup intact. But crushing fastballs like the good old days means Rodriguez has to a) be pain-free b) regain bat speed and c) stop hyperventilating in clutch situations.

For the second year in a row, Rodriguez ended the Yankees' playoffs hopes by striking out in the ninth inning of the decisive game. In 2011, he found himself overmatched by Jose Valverde in Game 5 of the AL Division Series against the Tigers _ a microcosm of everything that'd gone wrong since winning the World Series. Since 2010, A-Rod has batted .180 in the postseason.

Friends in the organization say A-Rod's slumps have all been tied to some malfunctioning or broken body part _ he hasn't choked, he's simply been hurt. But Cano is still a better bet to stay healthy, eight years younger than Rodriguez and uncompromised by a history with steroids. Rodriguez was at least honest enough to say, "There's no question I have limitations that I didn't have when I was 27 or 28 or even 32 (when he won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2007)."

Rodriguez can't even feel strongly about catching Bonds anymore, not unless he can ratchet up to his pace to at least 25 homers a year. To do that, he needs to play 130-140 games each summer, which means more at-bats against second and third-tier pitching, especially late in the summer when the Yankees feast on teams that are already out of the race.

A-Rod needs another 134 home runs in the last six years of his contract _ a formidable task, no doubt, but 11 hitters have hit that many after their 35th birthday: Bonds, Hank Aaron, Darrell Evans, Rafael Palmeiro, Carlton Fisk, Ted Williams, Andres Galarraga, Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Edgar Martinez, and Carl Yastrzemski.

That's the good news: it's been done before. The bad news is A-Rod is still in an unfamiliar world, trying not to end up like Monty Python's Black Knight. That's his rallying cry for 2012: Broken bones, torn ligaments, pulled muscles _ hey, it's just a flesh wound.

 

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