Any fan of the New York Yankees knows that if the team is to advance past the first round of the playoffs this year, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher are going to have to break out of the post-season malaise that has plagued them since joining the squad in 2009. The urgency for the duo to perform at a high level has been raised exponentially this season due to the very swift descent of Alex Rodriguez's career.
In years past, A-Rod has been tagged as a "choker" and took the brunt of the blame for the Yankees playoff failures. He was solely targeted when the Yankees blew a 3-0 lead to the Boston Red Sox in an ALCS that eventually led the Red Sox to their first title in 86 years. The Yankees poor performance on the mound, both starters and relievers, and a suddenly cold lineup were all to blame. But the Yankees fans as a whole have been especially hard on A-Rod, more than any other player, in all the of the Yankees playoff series that have followed.
Lost in the blind rage that was a result of the '04 series, was the fact Rodriguez hit .421 in the ALDS against the Twins and drove home the tying run in the 12th inning to help even the series at a game apiece. He was then 6-14 (.429) in the first three games against Boston with a home run, three RBI, and six runs scored, and homered again in Game 4. But struggles in the 2005 and 2006 post-seasons added to the pressure on Rodriguez and upped the anger from fans who felt the team fell short of their high expectations all due to their third baseman.
That perception temporarily changed in 2009 when A-Rod was an integral part of the Yankees 27th championship, but the boo birds have since returned. This time around it has nothing to do with the mental part of Rodriguez's game. It's about his physical skills diminishing and manager Joe Girardi's continuous mistake of leaving his highest paid, but highly unproductive player in the number three spot in the batting order.
A-Rod's had some decent stretches during the season, but his .783 OPS is the lowest since he was a 20-yr old rookie in 1995. Physical issues have begun to take their toll (which naturally brings up the subject of the possible impact steroids may have had on his body); he had surgery for a torn labrum in his hip in 2009, a sore shoulder and surgery on a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2011 (for which he took experimental platelet rich plasma treatment2 in the off-season) and had his left-hand broken this season courtesy of a Felix Hernandez pitch.
The knee slowed Rodriguez on the bases this year and the broken hand caused him to miss the last week of July (at the time of the injury, A-Rod appeared to be finally getting hot - he was on a 9-22 streak with a home run, two doubles, two walks, and three RBI) and all of August before returning for the final stretch run in September. At times, especially the last week of the season, Rodriguez drove the ball better and there was some cause for hope. But with the exception of a pair of hard hit baseballs in Game 2 of the ALDS (one fell in for a hit, the other was a liner that was speared on a nice play by second baseman Robert Andino and was turned into a double play), Rodriguez has looked clueless at the plate and his bat speed has been non-existent.
His 1-9 performance with five strikeouts thus far is a clear, overdue signal to Girardi that it is time to drop Rodriguez in the lineup. The move would still be the right one had Rodriguez hit .500 or .100 in every prior playoff series. That was then, this is now.
Joe Torre caused an uproar when he stuck A-Rod in the 8th spot1 in the 2006 playoffs, but that was more about trying to remove mental pressure from A-Rod (and perhaps was a passive aggressiveness from a frustrated Torre). While I wouldn't drop A-Rod into the eighth hole this time around, it is time to drop him down to the sixth spot in the order. He should not be any higher than that any time soon.
With the Orioles starting right-hander Miguel Gonzalez in Game 3, Girardi should use an order that has the usual 1-2 table setters at the top in Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, followed by Robinson Cano, who is long overdue for his rightful place hitting third. Teixeira has four hits and a walk in the first two games, so he bats clean up, followed by Raul Ibanez.
The left-handed hitting Ibanez has been swinging a clutch bat for some time and gets sandwiched between the switch-hitting Teixeira and the right-handed hitting A-Rod. Swisher, Curtis Granderson (pretty remarkable to put a player with 433 home runs in the next to last spot in the lineup), and Russell Martin round things out.
Make no mistake, clutch situations will still find A-Rod. That's just how baseball works; you can't hide anyone in the field or in the batting order. But the move does put the Yankees hottest hitter in the spot he (Cano) belongs, and shakes things up in a lineup that has struggled to produce runs outside of hitting a (team record) number of home runs.
Then it's up to those hitters to prove the move was the correct one.
1 - ESPN.com
2 - NY Daily News
3 - Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com