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What Should We Expect From Alex Rodriguez?

<strong>Alex Rodriguez</strong>
Alex Rodriguez

There have been some assertions in the media lately that Alex Rodriguez is not the player he used to be. The New York Yankee superstar turns 35 next month and it probably isn't fair to expect him to continue posting those 50-home run type seasons of days gone by.

A-Rod is signed to that gargantuan $275 million contract thru 2017, though, and it is undeniably fair to wonder just exactly what the Yankees will be getting for the $174 million they still have to pay him.

To figure that out, I thought I would look at the game's other great sluggers -- the top home run hitters of all time stratosphere A-Rod resides in -- for comparison. First, though, a little about Rodriguez and his current productivity.

Rodriguez is hardly a broken-down shell of what he once was, but it is obvious that his body is beginning to limit him. He played 158 games in 2007, a 54-home run season, but only 138 in 2008 and 124 last season.To be fair, he has now missed just six games this season. The current injury to his surgically repaired hip is troubling, though.

His numbers the past couple of seasons when he is in the lineup lend plenty of credence to those who say he has begun his inevitable decline.

In his last truly phenomenal season, 2007, he hit 54 homers and drove in 156 runs. He had a .645 slugging percentage and a crazy 1.067 OPS.

Those numbers have gone down each year since. A .573 slugging percentage and .965 OPS in 2008, .532 and .933 last season and just .482 and .843 (his lowest since 1997) this season.

In my mind, I have no doubt there is still plenty of greatness within Rodriguez. We have seen some of it this season when he has been challenged. Especially when teams have walked the bases loaded to pitch to him. We will see A-Rod do many more special things, just maybe not with the sustained, day-in and day-out or year-in and year-out excellence he has had in the past.

Much depends on the condition of his surgically-repaired hip, which is now once again the source of issues for Rodriguez. Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus thinks A-Rod will eventually need one -- or both hips replaced.

There are some interesting theories floating around about Rodriguez's latest hip problem. Like most body parts, each person has two hips. It's a symmetry issue, not a redundancy. Because of that symmetry, it's reasonable to think that when there are issues with one, there will be issues with the other. While that's generally true, at least in terms of probability, it's not true to any sort of certainty, largely because of how the body is used. Rodriguez's right hip is not used in the same way as the left hip, whether it's at the plate, in the field, or when he's home doing whatever it is he does. Rodriguez is out until Tuesday with an injury variously described as an iliopsoas strain and a hip flexor tendon problem, itself alternately described as a strain and a tendinitis issue. Rodriguez famously had a hybridized version of the FAIL surgery to repair his hip last season, but never had the second part after his surgeons felt it wasn't needed. (The second part was much more clean-up and not nearly as big a deal.) The great part for me is that all of those can be accurately described as "strained hip" as you see above. The specifics, while unclear, really don't matter. This is a maintenance issue for Rodriguez and the Yankees medical staff. Don't expect this to be a significant issue, though somewhere down the line—this upcoming offseason or perhaps much later—Rodriguez will have to have those hips worked on and likely replaced. In the short term, Rodriguez has to deal with what to him feels like a groin strain.

Carroll does not say if he got that medical opinion from someone in the know, or if it is just speculation. You have to wonder, though, how much impact the hip will have on the remainder of his career.

Here is a historical look at some of the greatest sluggers of all time in terms of what they accomplished beginning at age 35. We will skip Barry Bonds simply because, well, players don't get better after age 35 and we know BB had a little help with some of his outlandish accomplishments. We know Rodriguez has had some help, too, but I think we are safe to assume he is now clean.

So, let's look at some of the game's greatest sluggers.

  • Henry Aaron (755 home runs) -- From age 35 on, Hammerin' Hank hammered 245 home runs. From ages 35-39 he hit 44, 37, a career-best 47, 34 and 40 home runs. A pretty impressive five-year run.
  • Babe Ruth (714) -- Hit 198 of his home runs from age 35 on. Had seasons of 49, 49, 41 and 34 homers from ages 35-38.
  • Willie Mays (660) -- Hit 37 home runs in 1966 at age 35. Never hit 30 home runs in a season again despite not retiring until age 42. Had 163 home runs from age 35 on.
  • Ken Griffey (630) -- The just-retired superstar hit 35 home runs at age 35. At age 37 he hit 30, but never again reached 20 home runs in a season before retiring at 40. Hit 147 home runs from age 35 on.
  • Sammy Sosa (609) -- Sammy was also likely  'enhanced,' and maybe should not be in this discussion. But, I will toss him in just for discussion. Sammy hit 35 homers at age 35, but played just two seasons after that and totaled just 35 homers in those years.
  • Frank Robinson (586) -- Hit 28 homers for Baltimore at age 35, and 30 two years later for California. Had 133 homers after age 35.
  • Mark McGwire (583) -- We know about McGwire's PED admissions. I put him in here because what happened to him at the end of his career is instructive. Hit 70 homers at age 34 and 65 at age 35. Then his body quickly broke down. He hit 32 at age 36, and just 29 with a .187 batting average in 97 games at age 37. Then, he was gone.
  • Harmon Killebrew (573) -- Had eight seasons of 40 or more home runs, including 41 at age 34. Never hit more than 28 once turning 35, however. Had 86 home runs from age 35 on.

What can we take from all this?

In my mind, this. There is plenty of reason to be optimistic that A-Rod can and will continue to be a force in the Yankee lineup -- at least for the next 3-4 years. You also have to be realistic, though. His best days are gone. We won't be seeing any more 50-homer, 150-RBI seasons. There should be plenty of special moments, and plenty of big hits in A-Rod's bat, provided his hip allows him to play comfortably.

I just think we have to realize there are probably no more special, MVP-caliber, seasons ahead for Rodriguez.