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What if the Yankees never traded for Alex Rodriguez?

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Revisiting a decision that dramatically changed the franchise.

Alex Rodriguez Signs with The New York Yankees - Press Conference Photo by Theo Wargo/WireImage

Few Yankees are more divisive than Alex Rodriguez. He’s the best-hitting third baseman in franchise history, but became a scapegoat for the team’s postseason failures during his early years with the club, before reversing the narrative in 2009. Tension between he and Derek Jeter created an awkward clubhouse vibe, and his twice-admitted use of steroids tarnished his reputation.

Although Rodriguez has remarkably improved his reputation as a commentator post-playing career, his long, strange journey with the Yankees is worth re-examining during SB Nation’s “What If?” Week. In part one, we’ll look at the 2004 trade between the Yankees and Rangers that originally netted Rodriguez, while in part two, we’ll dive into his subsequent 2007 contract extension.

Let’s take stock of the Yankees in February 2004. They had just laid an egg in the 2003 World Series against the upstart Florida Marlins (a Yankees team we recently voted as the best not to win it all), and had just lost Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells from the starting rotation. Aaron Boone, who had surprisingly hit the home run that sent the Bombers to the Fall Classic, was slated as the team’s third baseman with a salary of $5.75 million.

When Boone tore his ACL and breached his contract by playing pickup basketball, the Yankees needed a third baseman. The Yankees still had Jeter, Alfonso Soriano, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams and Hideki Matsui, and had acquired Gary Sheffield and Tony Clark. They really didn’t need an impact third baseman; they could get by with Enrique Wilson or another cheap veteran at third for the year. Budding infield prospects Robinson Cano and Joaquin Arias, both of whom were too young to help in the majors in 2004, could have certainly gotten more reps at third base to fill the hole long-term.

But when MLB ruled the trade centered around Rodriguez between the Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox void, the Yankees had a chance to make the ultimate play. Rodriguez was the game’s best shortstop, and quite possibly its brightest star at age-27 coming off an MVP year. The Yankees would be getting a bona fide All-Star, swiping him away from the Red Sox in the process. Although Rodriguez played the same position as Jeter and had seen their relationship cool, Rodriguez agreed to play third base to give it a shot with the Yankees.

The trade mostly centered around money. The Rangers wanted to offload Rodriguez’s salary, so the Yankees took 63 percent of his salary off their hands, and also sent Soriano and a prospect of Texas’s choosing to the Rangers. The Rangers were supposedly deciding between Arias and Cano, and chose Arias. Arias only played 91 games for the Rangers, while Cano went on to become the Yankees’ next big homegrown star.

What would have happened if the Yankees didn’t trade for Rodriguez? For one, Soriano would have remained a Yankee, at least until his contract expired in 2006. By that time, he had switched to become a full-time left fielder, which may or may not have happened with the Yankees. At the very least, they’d still have two years of Soriano, and possibly more.

If the Yankees didn’t acquire Rodriguez, they’d also have over $110 million to play with. There’s a real chance this would’ve been spent on Carlos Beltran in the following offseason. Beltran was smitten with the Yankees, and preferred them to the Mets. The Mets offered Beltran a seven-year, $119 million contract, while the Yankees offered six years at $96 million. Beltran later acknowledged that the Yankees wouldn’t match the Mets’ deal in real-life 2005, but in this universe, they likely would have offered more if they didn’t have Rodriguez’s salary on the books or bat in the lineup.

So, after enduring a black hole at third base in 2004, but adding Beltran with Rodriguez’s money (while keeping Soriano and converting Cano), this creates a 2005 Yankees lineup that looks like this:

  1. Alfonso Soriano – 2B
  2. Derek Jeter – SS
  3. Carlos Beltran – CF
  4. Gary Sheffield – RF
  5. Jason Giambi – 1B
  6. Hideki Matsui – LF
  7. Jorge Posada – C
  8. Bernie Williams – DH
  9. Robinson Cano – 3B*

There are some long-term affects here, too. What if Cano didn’t take kindly to third base? Either he or Soriano would have had to have been traded. Would the Yankees have re-signed Soriano after 2006? Maybe, but then they likely don’t acquire Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu. Chances are that those two would have effectively replaced Soriano, Sheffield and Williams from 2007-08.

At the end of the day, the thing that held the Yankees back from 2004-2007 wasn’t hitting it was pitching. Signing Carl Pavano, Kevin Brown, Jaret Wright and trading for Jeff Weaver all bombed, while the team couldn’t replace the losses of Clemens, Pettitte and Wells. With that said, I’m not sure that anything would have changed if the Yankees didn’t trade for Rodriguez. Although A-Rod had two MVP years in his first four years as a Yankee, Soriano and Beltran probably would have been able to collectively produce more WAR, albeit across multiple positions.

Thus, I think the Yankees would still have gone title-less from 2004-2008 without Rodriguez. Even without A-Rod’s postseason failures and clubhouse tension, I still think it was the lack of pitching that made the biggest difference for those teams. They wouldn’t have gotten over the hump, with or without Rodriguez, unless they had traded Cano, Melky Cabrera and other prospects for a young arm. In that way, acquiring Rodriguez was certainly worth a shot, and ultimately paid off in 2009, a few years later than expected.

*Stay tuned for Part Two of this series on Thursday, which will look at what would have changed if the Yankees didn’t bring A-Rod back before 2008.*