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25 Smartest Moves of the Past 25 Years: The Alex Rodriguez trade

As it turns out, it’s a good idea to add the best player in baseball.

Alex Rodriguez (R) puts on a New York Ya Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Sometimes, landing the game’s best player is hard. You have to identify something in a college or high school bat that’s just different, or you have to find a way to mold a raw international free agent into a complete product. And then, sometimes, landing the game’s best player is easy — swoop in after a deal collapses and ...

Trade Details: Alex Rodriguez and cash to Yankees; Alfonso Soriano and a player to be named later (Joaquin Arias) to Rangers

Transaction Date: February 16, 2004

NYY stats during first contract (2004-07): 629 G, 2,795 PA, .303/.403/.573, 173 HR, 513 RBI, 29.1 fWAR, 4-time All-Star, 2005 and 2007 AL MVP

Sorry, I need a cigarette after staring at that stat line.

Everything about Alex Rodriguez is and was bigger than life. He was the best high school prospect the world had ever seen, he was a key contributor to the best era in Mariners’ history, and of course, his 2001 free agency set a new standard for what pro athletes are paid.

Even the story of how Rodriguez became a Yankee is worth a movie, or at least, one of the best 30 For 30s that ESPN has ever run. The Rangers, despite A-Rod finishing sixth, second, and first in MVP voting his three seasons in Texas, wanted payroll relief and felt they had to diversify talent on the squad, rather than surrounding the game’s best player with fill-ins.

Rodriguez strikes out

The Boston Red Sox, of course, were reeling from the 2003 ALCS, and Aaron F’n Boone, and felt they needed one more big piece to finally push them over the top in the rivalry with the Yankees. The proposed deal was to send Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, and then-prospect Jon Lester to Texas, with Rodriguez, Magglio Ordóñez of the White Sox, and Brandon McCarthy coming to Beantown. The sticking point was all that outstanding money — $179 million of it — which made Theo Epstein balk.

To Rodriguez’s credit, he was open to restructuring his deal, taking less money and an opt out, and even signed an agreed-upon deal that would have allowed the trade to be executed...before the MLBPA stepped in to nix the deal. Allowing the game’s highest-paid player to give up guaranteed money set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the union, and it was seen as too great a risk even if A-Rod was on board. The Red Sox were out.

At around the same time, Aaron Boone, that hero of the ALCS, played a game of pickup basketball in California. A torn ACL quashed his entire 2004 season before it could even remotely begin, and since he violated a term of his contract, the Yankees were eager to release Boone from his deal ... and they needed a third baseman.

All it took was Alfonso Soriano, who was admittedly coming off back-to-back five-win seasons that saw him flirt with the 40/40 Club. The Rangers selected Joaquin Arias as a PTBNL, from a list that reportedly included one Robinson Canó, and sent $67 million to the Yankees to help offset the cost of such a big contract. Alex Rodriguez was a Yankee, the Yankees’ third baseman in fact, as he agreed to a move that allowed captain Derek Jeter to remain at shortstop (despite A-Rod’s superior defense). It was a testament to what can happen if you’re just willing to put up some money.

We’re only covering Rodriguez’s first four seasons as a Yankee, since his opt-out after the 2007 — in the middle of the World Series, a cinematic tale in and of itself — cuts away at what the Yankees were guaranteed when they traded for him, but what a four years it was.

Pick a stat, any stat.

wRC+? In those four seasons, the only players better than Rodriguez were Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz. Maybe you prefer fWAR, where only Albert was better over those four seasons. Big Papi was the only player to go deep more than A-Rod, or drive in more runs. In a nod to just how complete a player peak A-Rod was, he was in the top-20 in stolen bases over those four years, hitting in the heart of some of the most fearsome lineups baseball had ever seen. A total of 18.7 fWAR combined between 2005 and 2007 made him the runaway MVP in both seasons, and with each win, he set a new franchise record for most homers by a right-handed hitter (48 in ‘05 and 54 in ‘07).

But as always, the story of Alex Rodriguez isn’t one that can be confined to just the ballpark. For some, like a 12-year-old Canadian with a Sports Illustrated subscription, his Bondsian April 2007 became a formal education in how to evaluate swing mechanics and the value of diving deeper than average, home runs and RBI.

For others, their memories of A-Rod may not be so kind.

The Yankees played in five postseason series in those first four years with Alex, where he became a symbol of the decline of the Yankee Empire. The big bad Yankees went out and made a huge splash, only to be embarrassed in 2004 and fail to advance out of the division series the next three seasons.

In his first taste of October baseball in the Bronx, A-Rod acquitted himself well with a .931 OPS in the 2004 postseason, but after that, three dreadful playoff offerings from the team’s best player made him a scapegoat for team-wide issues. Manager Joe Torre batting him eighth in the midst of a truly, truly terrible 2006 ALDS was perhaps the nadir of Rodriguez’s tenure before opting out in the fall of 2007. (He of course re-signed and finally won his ring with a blistering postseason, but that was a different transaction.)

Adding to all that is the belief that A-Rod wasn’t really the easiest person to work with, and I tend to think that’s at least partially correct. He was a baseball and workout fiend, famous for being immersed in the game 24/7, unable to relax or talk about much that happened outside the confines of a baseball stadium. He had a love/hate relationship with franchise shortstop Derek Jeter, and even if the real-life tensions between the two were more the fault of both parties than fans or writers like to believe, it fit a narrative of A-Rod as the supremely talented, difficult-to-handle prima donna — indeed, not unlike the drama that surrounded Bonds at the same time in the Bay.

Still, even with all the drama, peak Alex Rodriguez is about as good a baseball player as you will ever see. The Yankees’ ability to swoop in and take advantage of the Red Sox stumbling is one of Brian Cashman’s greatest coups, and to see a player put up 30 wins in four seasons ... I’d still make that trade every single day.