Trouble always finds Alex Rodriguez, even when he's doing everything he can to avoid it. Of the many surprises since the baseball season dawned in February, among the unlikeliest has been A-Rod, good citizen. He took his punishment for steroid use, lying and general chicanery, mended his body and returned as an exemplary teammate who happens to be swinging like a near-prime version of himself.
Every whit of success comes with a price, of course. With his four home runs this season – every one of them a no-doubter, lest anyone think he's just sneaking balls over the fence – Rodriguez stands two swings away from tying Willie Mays' 660 mark for fourth on the all-time home run list. Once he hits the mark, it triggers a clause in his contract that calls for a $6 million bonus.
Lest you think it ends there, just remember: This is A-Rod, and these are the New York Yankees, and the sight of him wearing the uniform of a team he dislikes is just as amusing as the team that dislikes writing him checks totaling $64 million over the next three years. Those are his salaries. The $6 million bonuses for home run No. 660 and other important numbers beyond that, on the other hand, fall under a marketing agreement, because straight up milestone clauses are not allowed in contracts.
And despite his start this year – carrying a New York offense that looks every bit its age while Rodriguez plays better than he did in recent years when juiced to the gills – the Yankees have zero intentions of paying the bonuses, sources familiar with the situation told Yahoo Sports. At issue is the specific language in the contract and whether the Yankees can argue that 660 home runs is not a milestone and, thus, they chose in good faith not to acknowledge it as such.
The details are integral in adjudicating a case, which will be necessary if the Yankees challenge it, which, barring something, they will, and whether Rodriguez then files a grievance, which, considering his litigious past, remains likelier than not. He could leave well enough alone, but then would he really be Alex Rodriguez if he did that?
"If he fights," one source said, "he's going to lose."
"No way," another source countered. "[The bonuses] will stand."
Both sources, familiar with the contract and its language, interpret it entirely differently. The Yankees consider No. 660 an unmarketable event because of Rodriguez's steroid use, though the Yankees, kings of marketing themselves, have made far bigger deals out of far lesser happenings. The other side's argument is straightforward: When Rodriguez hits his 660th, he'll have fulfilled his part of the contract. Classifying it as a marketing agreement was a procedural gambit that allowed Rodriguez to receive bonuses that he'd have been due were the rules different. The Yankees signed him, warts and all. Rewarding him with the same is the fair thing to do.
No precedent exists in this case, leaving it in the hands of …
1. Alex Rodriguez whether he wants to accept the idea that his steroid use somehow negated the veracity of his accomplishments. By doing so, he essentially would invalidate a large portion of his career. And considering Rodriguez cared enough about baseball not just to come back and collect checks but show up capable of hitting a ball like this, surely he's not going to throw away his life's work to allow the Yankees to make a point rooted in moralism with which he obviously disagrees.
He isn't owed the bonuses because he is playing well at the moment. Whether it takes him two weeks to hit the six home runs he needed coming into the season or two months, dropping balls over the fence is all that matters. It so happens Rodriguez is hitting the ball as hard as anybody this season.
While the numbers on exit velocity off the bat are incomplete, the ones calculated on Baseball Savant show Rodriguez at the top of the list with an average 101-mph speed off the bat. It's elite level, right there ahead of Jorge Soler, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig and Mookie Betts. Joining them soon could be …
2. Kris Bryant and the hype train that suffered a one-day derailment before everyone calmed themselves down and remembered this is an elite bat, one that's going to send home runs soaring out of the new Wrigley Field in due time.
It's easy to get lost in all of it. The service-time nonsense. The questions over his ultimate position. The hilarity with which he recoils when a horse moves its front leg. All of those will work themselves out. What will endure is the bat and the sorts of things Bryant can do with it. He's not quite at the …
3. Mike Trout/Miguel Cabrera level yet, and even if he reaches his ceiling may still find himself short. While it didn't take Trout and Cabrera having a great first two weeks of the season to remind us of the splendor with which they play, it certainly doesn't hurt anyone for them to look in midseason shape a few months early.
Even after a rough weekend against Houston, Trout is hitting .364/.420/.614. And Cabrera finds himself at .426/.491/.660, among the top five in all three categories in the American League.
Forever they'll be attached because of their MVP races, and it ought be that way. Nelson Cruz can have his great month, Adam Jones his streaks of preeminence, others their challenges to the throne. The AL has two kings, neither willing to cede anything, nor should they be. Not to any players, and certainly not to the …
4. Kansas City Royals, who for some reason decided to carry themselves like the drunken tough guy at the bar. The city absolutely loves it, the idea that after decades of being pushed around and bullied the Royals are doing their best Twisted Sister impersonation.
Here's the problem with that: It's completely unnecessary and entirely unbecoming. The Royals are a really good baseball team: deeper than expected offensively, strong enough in the starting rotation and possessing the best bullpen and defense in the game. The toughest guys are the ones who needn't tell you they're tough.
The Royals, on the other hand, have taken every opportunity to rage against these concocted enemies. They complain about being hit by 14 pitches this season. The Texas Rangers have eaten 16, and they're not crying conspiracy. Ventura went aggro on Trout and acted like he wanted to start a fight because … well, that's still not clear. Over the weekend came the nadir, triggered by a dirty slide from Oakland third baseman Brett Lawrie that injured iron man shortstop Alcides Escobar and left the Royals rightfully angry.
Ventura hit him with a 99-mph fastball, Lawrie took it without complaint and everything looked done. Then Oakland starter Scott Kazmir threw a fastball that hit Lorenzo Cain on the foot in the first inning Sunday, and the Royals took that as an act of aggression during détente. They could've just shrugged it off, taken the possibility that Kazmir was trying to push Cain off the plate, not hurt him. It would've been a reasonable thing to consider at a time that begged for reason. So would've brushing back any of the other eight hitters in the A's lineup.
Instead, Royals did Royals, and Kelvin Herrera threw a 100-mph fastball behind Lawrie's back, nearly grazing his jersey, about a foot below his head. They were mad manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland got thrown out of the game in the first inning for arguing Kazmir shouldn't have escaped with just a warning. And rather than hit anyone else, they targeted Lawrie – a loud-and-clear declaration to a near sellout at Kauffman Stadium as well as the rest of the league that this team will fight whoever, whenever, wherever.
The city ate it up, of course, because it is like the friend of the drunken tough guy. You have to stand up for him, explain away his illogical behavior, do everything you can to justify him. And that's OK. That's laudable.
Just don't get indignant when the rest of the country looks at the Royals as belligerent, antagonistic and unlikeable when they should be seen like they were last October, before their inner pugnacity surfaced: fun, enjoyable and eminently likeable. If this is how the Royals want to be seen, how they feel like they must act to maintain an edge, so be it. Bullies eventually get punched in the mouth, though, and to call the Royals anything less than that right now would be sugar-coating things.
So the title of scrappy, cool team goes by default to the …
5. New York Mets? Take their malodorous owners out of the scenario and, yeah, there's a good case to be made that the Mets, on an eight-game winning streak, are indeed that team. Matt Harvey is back and a star. Jacob deGrom is one-upping his Rookie of the Year-winning self. Jeurys Familia looks great having taken over for the steroid-suspended Jenrry Mejia as closer. Alex Torres looks like he's wearing a cake box on top of his head. The Mets are officially relevant again.
Now comes the tough part: maintaining it. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud, almost as good this season as his lowercase brother-in-arms deGrom, broke his hand on a hit-by-pitch Sunday and may miss significant time. Reliever Jerry Blevins took a line drive off his arm and broke it, too. They've got Kevin Plawecki at Triple-A ready to fill in for d'Arnaud, and Torres' presence helps ease the loss of Blevins, but these are the sorts of blows that neuter good teams.
For now, the Mets can take solace in the fact they're ahead of their fellow basement dweller of recent years, Philadelphia, and that by not trading …
6. Cole Hamels the Phillies actively put themselves in this vulnerable position where they've got a declining asset whose struggles may be mistaken for the beginning of that decline.
Hamels is fine, his raw stuff is the same as it ever was. His problem is a combination of luck – seven of the 12 hits against him are home runs – and poor location, particularly with his fastball in the upper reaches of the strike zone. Compared to 2014, Hamels' heatmap in 2015 is bright red letter high. Five of the seven home runs against him have come on fastballs, and Hamels is too good a pitcher to keep making that mistake. Though as …
7. Ian Desmond can attest, mistakes don't always vanish with a snap of the fingers and a wish goodbye. In 13 games, Desmond has committed eight errors of all manner and variety. Bobbles and bumbles, bad throws and misplayed popups. For all the focus on Jon Lester's inability to throw the ball to first base, Desmond's yips are troublesome in a contract season.
His price tag depends on his bat and his ability to hit, and despite hitting nearly two-thirds of his balls on the ground, Desmond's .314/.375/.451 slash line and home run power is elite enough that teams will look past any defensive maladies that exist or persist. While Desmond is a strikeout machine, his power offsets the detriment of his whiffs. Someone will pay Desmond more than the $100 million he turned down from the Nationals because in an environment where …
8. Shane Greene is throwing up zeroes like he's Sandy Koufax, good bats are difficult to find. Greene is a classic Dave Dombrowski acquisition, perhaps Doug Fister 2.0, and they're similar pitchers: both toiling around 50 percent groundballs, both capable of striking guys out and both snagged for pennies on the dollar. His 0.39 ERA is one of the more interesting numbers from the season's first two weeks. Joining it:
• Before his home run Sunday, all three of Pedro Alvarez's shots had come on first pitches. Otherwise, 70 percent of the balls he hit were on the ground. The lesson: Don't feed him first-pitch strikes and keep the ones you do low.
• Ben Zobrist might be the perfect Oakland A. He leads the league in rate of pitches taken at 67.1 percent. Of the 57 swings he had taken going into Sunday, he whiffed on just two, also the best percentage in the league. While Zobrist doesn't swing and miss, his teammate, Sam Fuld, just doesn't swing. Of the 48 first pitches he'd seen this year, he hadn't offered at one.
• The swing and miss is still abundant in baseball. Mike Zunino is missing 46.6 percent of pitches swung at while George Springer is at 43 percent and Chris Davis 40.6.
• Reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber is as good as ever. Of the 305 pitches he has thrown, hitters have swung 156 times and missed a league-high 50. Worth keeping an eye on: Madison Bumgarner has generated just 24 misses on 141 swings.
• Breakout alert: Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson has the league's highest swing-and-miss rate through two starts at 36 percent.
• Atlanta's Alex Wood has induced seven double-play groundballs in three starts. No other starter has more than four.
• The best stat: Going into Sunday, Christian Yelich had put 30 balls in play. And according to STATS LLC, not one of them was a flyball: 24 on the ground, six line drives. Baseball Info Solutions gives Yelich credit for two flyballs, but the point stands: He needs to do a better job of driving the ball so …
9. Giancarlo Stanton doesn't have to call his teammates out anymore. The Marlins are 3-10, half a game ahead of Milwaukee for the worst record in baseball, and Stanton has only 12 years, five months and two weeks left tied to the organization.
The Marlins aren't this bad, and if Henderson Alvarez can return healthy alongside Jose Fernandez, that will go a long way to solving their problems. They've allowed the second-most runs in baseball, their rotation a mess and their bullpen no better, and their playoff hopes have taken a significant hit, with a seven-game hole to just to scratch back to .500. It's possible, certainly. If …
10. Alex Rodriguez can get back in the good graces of baseball, anything is possible. And he's on his way there because of good behavior and good play, the one-two punch that seemed the unlikeliest outcome in his season's Punnett square.
The chances of the performance lasting aren't the best. His average on balls in play is high, boosting his batting average artificially to its .316 level. He's striking out far too much – 15 times in 38 at-bats. And yet the power to hit a ball nearly 480 feet exists, as does the triple-digit exit speed, and both of those things bode well.
It's the behavior that's under Rodriguez's control and his control alone, and so far he couldn't be doing much better. If he files a grievance once he hits 660, it will be tough to blame him. This was considered the cherry on top of the $275 million the Yankees guaranteed him, and to get out of that while it couldn't escape the salaries owed isn't the easiest argument to make.
The Yankees will try, and it may set up another war between them and the player anchoring their lineup. It's odd, awkward and ridiculous. And so perfect. A-Rod wouldn't have it any other way.