In the spirit of SB Nation’s “What If?” Week, I looked at what would have happened if the Yankees had never traded for Alex Rodriguez earlier this week. The conclusion was that, although the Yankees would have kept Alfonso Soriano and likely added Carlos Beltran a year later, the team still wouldn’t have gotten over the hump and won a World Series without adding more pitching.
However, that’s just chapter one of A-Rod’s story with the Yankees. So, what would have happened in a universe in which the Yankees acquire Rodriguez in 2004, but let him go after 2007? His original contract included an opt-out after the 2007 season, one that he was wise to exercise after what was perhaps his finest season at age 31. A-Rod, the owner of the largest contract in sports history at the time, was due for another massive payday.
The problem was how Rodriguez went about his business. He announced his opt-out in the middle of the 2007 World Series in what was viewed as a selfish move. Hank Steinbrenner certainly thought as much, declaring that the Yankees would not try to keep Rodriguez:
“It’s a shame, but we are all in agreement: myself, my dad, my brother, all the baseball people. If you don’t want to be a Yankee and paid what you’re being paid, we don’t want you, that’s the bottom line,” Steinbrenner said. “You’d be hard-pressed to argue that point. If you don’t understand the magnitude of being a Yankee and understand what that means, and being the highest-paid player in baseball, I think it’s pretty obvious.
“If we’re going to make you rich and we’re going to give you the privilege of being a Yankee, you’ve got to show us you want to be here.”
It sounded like the bridge had burned, but the Yankees ultimately caved when faced with the possibility of losing the best hitter in baseball smack in his prime, while desperately seeking a championship. The Yankees originally wanted to let Rodriguez go in part because of the massive investment in his later, declining years, but the team decided to bite the bullet and re-sign A-Rod for 10 more years at $275 million.
This is where evaluating Rodriguez’s Yankees legacy gets tough. Rodriguez was still worth it for at least the first three years of the deal before his injuries and a lengthy PED suspension. Simply put, and there’s almost no arguing this point, the Yankees do not win the 2009 World Series without him. If you measure contract success by championships, then re-signing Rodriguez was worth it, even if the next few years got quite messy and the end involved massively overpaying a 40-year-old designated hitter.
It looked like the Yankees were ready to move on after 2007, though. And if they did, the Yankees as we know them today would still be affected.
While the Yankees had kicked Rodriguez to the curb, they entered negotiations with the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera. Ultimately, the Yankees passed on acquiring the 25-year-old superstar because they were reluctant to trade any of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy. Cabrera was then traded to the Tigers, and the Yankees came running back to A-Rod.
What if the Yankees had actually followed through and gotten Cabrera? They’d have gotten a player who became the equivalent of 2001-2007 Rodriguez, the best right-handed-hitter in the league, instead of the 2008-2016 version of Rodriguez the Yankees overpaid for. If the Yankees had acquired Cabrera after letting Rodriguez walk, the Yankees would still win the 2009 World Series and maybe get to one more.
The Yankees ultimately weren’t willing to trade any of their “Big Three” starting pitching prospects, making Cabrera in pinstripes just a pipe dream. So, where else could they have gone at third base to replace Rodriguez?
As far as trades go, Adrian Beltre was a good player toiling on a directionless Seattle club that could have been a target. Michael Young was linked to the Yankees in 2013, but probably would have been unavailable in his prime. A young Edwin Encarnacion was traded from Cincinnati to Toronto in 2009, and could have become a Yankee a decade earlier than he actually was. An extremely possible move (and an incredibly poor one) could have been the Yankees getting roped into buying former Yankees killer Chone Figgins, who moved from the Angels to the Mariners and saw his career plummet. Or, the team could have eventually trusted the hot corner to Eduardo Nunez, although he profiled better as a shortstop.
So, in terms of third base, the Yankees probably wouldn’t have been able to secure an upgrade over Rodriguez unless they had acquired Cabrera or Beltre. But, they certainly would have spent their money differently. There would have been money in the budget to retain Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui after 2009. Or, they could have replaced them with a 30-year-old Matt Holliday, who signed with the Cardinals for seven years and $120 million before 2010 and slashed .288/.377/.486 over the life of the deal. Again, there’s still a void at third base, which could have been filled with Beltre through a trade or free agency at this point.
So, let’s look at a potential, post-Rodriguez, 2010-12 Yankees lineup:
- Derek Jeter – SS
- Curtis Granderson – CF
- Robinson Cano – 2B
- Mark Teixeira – 1B
- Matt Holliday – DH
- Adrian Beltre – 3B
- Nick Swisher – RF
- Russell Martin – C
- Brett Gardner – LF
Not too shabby! But of course, there are also long-term impacts to Rodriguez being let go after 2007. After all, he was arguably the face of the franchise. That honor would have been passed onto Robinson Cano, who would certainly have been re-signed after 2013. If that’s the case, then Jacoby Ellsbury is never a Yankee, and the team never trades for Gleyber Torres, having committed to Cano and Didi Gregorius in the middle infield. Those 2013-2016 Yankees teams would have performed better, and may not have gotten the chance to draft Aaron Judge.
Essentially, the real-life Yankees had two title windows (2009-2012 and 2017-present) with a reloading period in the middle. If they let Rodriguez go, that title window probably becomes one big one from 2009-2015, but the team subsequently declines and has to rebuild around 2016, and deal with Cano’s contract. Basically, they’d be going through real-life 2013-2016 now, only without the promise of Torres and Judge in the future. Ultimately, the Yankees won one World Series with Rodriguez over his second contract, and I think that statement remains the same if they had let him go and replaced him effectively.
With that said, the future of the team in 2020 and beyond is brighter in the current scenario. Thus, I think the Yankees made the right choice by re-signing Alex Rodriguez. The contract became a burden, but it produced a championship, and without its shortcomings, the Yankees wouldn’t be in the spot they’re enjoying right now.