There's no way around it - Alex Rodriguez has been awful so far this post-season. His line is an unimaginable .130/.200/.130 in 25 plate appearances, and on top of that, he's struck out 48% of the time he's come to the plate. That number would make Adam Dunn cringe. And every time he either comes to bat in October (or is pinch-hit for), his outlook for 2013 and beyond is further sucked into a black hole. It was fine when the debate was between taking Alex Rodriguez or David Freese, but now that debate is shifting down towards the Kyle Seager/Chris Johnson portion of the position. If he continues to struggle like this over the remainder of the playoffs, will the conversations move him down into Matt Dominguez territory?
I shouldn't need to tell you this, but A-Rod has not instantly become one of the worst players in baseball, despite the fact that he's looked the part recently. So how do we separate the signal from the noise? It would be easy to say that we should break out the debate into two topics: health and performance; however, in 2012, they were severely intertwined.
One of the most underappreciated injuries a player can have is a hand/wrist injury. Maybe it's because it doesn't seem as serious as a leg injury or a shoulder injury - however, to a hitter, it can wreak havoc upon their ability to perform. A-Rod missed just under six weeks of the season, from late July to early September with a broken 5th metacarpal (pinkie) on his left hand. This was faster than the 6-8 week timeframe given at the time of the injury. To understand how important having a left pinkie at full strength is to a right-handed batter, hold an imaginary bat in your hands right now. It's the last finger above the knob and one that requires a lot of pressure in order to generate bat speed. If you rush back from an injury like that and your finger was not at full strength, it would inhibit your ability to catch up with velocity and to drive the ball with authority. Sound familiar?
Here were A-Rod's stats both before and after July 24, 2012 (the day he was hit on the hand by a Felix Hernandez pitch):
Before - .276/.358/.449 with 15 HR, 44 RBI, 54 R, 11 SB (in 12 chances) and a 21.0% K rate in 400 PA
After - .261/.341/.369 with 3 HR, 13 RBI, 20 R, 2 SB (in 2 chances) and a 24.7% K rate in 129 PA
With all the caveats that it's a small sample size, the numbers make sense when accompanied with a narrative of A-Rod coming back from injury early to try and help his team stave off the Rays/Orioles, while not being 100% healthy. Unfortunately, the way A-Rod is portrayed by the baseball media (especially in New York), this theory would require an enormous suspension of disbelief by the public. It's just easier to assume he's old, terrible and needs the help of a synthetic substance to be a contributing member of the Yankees.
Perception aside, there are two important items to pay attention to relating to A-Rod's health going forward. First of all, his 2012 injury was a fluke and not of the soft tissue variety which has been more common for him lately. On top of that, in December of 2011, Rodriguez went to Germany to have a knee procedure similar to the one performed on Kobe Bryant earlier that year. The surgery was supposed to remove the lingering pain he had in his knee, which was repaired during the 2011 season. Reports in spring training were that his knee felt great, but stealing 13 bases in 14 attempts in 2012 was a nice way to prove that to everyone. After all, A-Rod only had 8 SB in 2010 and 2011 combined.
No one is expecting Alex Rodriguez the AL MVP candidate to come walking through that door in spring training next season, but that doesn't need to happen for A-Rod to return positive value next year. It doesn't even need to happen in order for A-Rod to be a top-10 3B. I said the same thing about Derek Jeter last year, but the most underrated thing about having an aging player in a very good lineup is that his ability to get counting stats gets underrated. A-Rod was the 14th best 3B on the ESPN Player Rater in 2012, despite his missed time and struggles down the stretch -- which is a testament to how shallow the position played. In fact, the 10th most valuable 3B didn't have double-digit homers or steals (Marco Scutaro).
A-Rod is still capable of putting together a season like the one Ryan Zimmerman put together this year (.282-350-95-93-5), when he was the 7th best 3B for fantasy. I won't project him for 145 games, like Zimmerman played in, but I wouldn't for anyone playing his age-37 season. So don't sweat the chuckles you may get on draft day when you take Alex Rodriguez after the first 10-12 third basemen are off the board -- you'll be the one with the last laugh.
My way-too-early 2013 projection for Alex Rodriguez: .274 with 21 HR, 92 RBI, 85 R, 8 SB in 513 AB.