For all the drama, real and imagined, that has clung to Alex Rodriguez like his pinstripes during his years in New York, two immutable truths remained: He would play, and he would play well. Correction: he would play a lot (missing just 43 games in his five years in New York, barely over five percent) and he would play very, very well (averaging over 40 home runs and a .303/.401/.573 line since 2004).
He would play so well, in fact, that the sideshows that he too often engendered came to be seen as a sort of necessary ankleweight the Yankees had to endure for the cost of employing the man everyone almost universally agreed was the best player in baseball.
But the news that Rodriguez has a torn labrum that could require surgery forces a critical decision that will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Yankees make it back to the postseason: what now? Should A-Rod have surgery, which his brother reportedly said he would do and which could keep him out for four months, or should he try rest and rehabilitation in an effort to minimize the amount of time he will miss?
Those early reports that A-Rod would have surgery now are being refuted by the Yankees, who are hoping that he can get healthy without going under the knife. Surgery would seem to be the only sure way to correct the problem. If the parties involved decide to try and rest him, they would do so only if they felt he couldn't reaggravate the injury once he starts playing again. Whatever decision the Yankees make will surely be arrived at after lengthy consultation with medical experts. That decision will be driven in the short term by the impact on the Yankees ability to compete in major league baseball's toughest division and in the long term by money.
For now, there are no silver linings to this injury (unless you happen to be a fan of another team in the AL East). There is no suitable on-field replacement for Rodriguez, either in the Yankees clubhouse or anywhere else in major league baseball. Nor is there even an adequate replacement. A-Rod's VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, which is defined by Baseball Prospectus as a measurement of how many runs a player would contribute beyond what a replacement player at the same position would contribute given the same percentage of a team's plate appearances) was 62.9, the seventh-highest in baseball. His WARP-1 (wins above replacement player) was 8.9, third highest among AL position players.
Trading for a new third baseman - which is how the Yankees acquired A-Rod in the first place, following a knee injury to Aaron Boone before the 2004 season - isn't an option either, not with A-Rod scheduled to return at some point. The Yankees would appear to be stuck with an in-house replacement, the most likely of which is Cody Ransom, a 32-year-old journeyman who has played 166 career games and hit all of seven home runs. Ransom isn't even a top prospect that would gain a great deal from additional playing time. Bradley Suttle, a 23-year-old who was a fourth-round pick in 2007, has talent, but is still a long way from the majors, having never played above Class A.
It is in the Yankees' best interests to get Rodriguez as healthy as possible as soon as possible. Because as devastating as it could be to their won-loss record to have him be out until midseason, the only thing worse would be trying to rush him back and have him miss even more time by aggravating his injury. Caution will be driven as much by A-Rod's health as by his salary. He still has nine years and almost $250 million remaining on the contract he signed after the 2007 season. Alex Rodriguez now rivals the Hope diamond as the world's most valuable artifacts to be sitting on a shelf.
How long he stays there will go a long way toward determining the fate of the Yankees season and perhaps, their future.