The last time we saw Alex Rodriguez playing Major League Baseball, he was performing quite well, batting .244/.348/.423 with 7 HR and a 113 wRC+ across 181 PA. That is, of course, well below the lofty standards set by his career as a whole, and a rather unattractive slash line in the context of the era - but I would also suggest that it was fairly encouraging. At 38-years-old, with two surgically repaired hips and a surgically repaired right knee, Rodriguez managed to be an above-average hitter over what amounts to a quarter of a season. If you cocked your head and squinted a bit, things were looking up for Rodriguez, as he prepared for the upcoming season. But that was 2013, and 'the upcoming season' ended up being 'TBA.' And ... well, you know the rest. As of this writing, it has been 488 days since Rodriguez played professional baseball. By the time the Yankees suit-up for their first Spring Training game in March, it will have been one year, five months, one week, and three days since the last time Rodriguez donned pinstripes - and that's assuming he plays some role in that game. It's difficult to project players along an aging curve to begin with, and that is particularly true for historically great ones. Factor in a season away from the game, and sixteen or seventeen months away from the team's training facilities and staff, and we have an anomalous wrinkle to deal with. So we'll just have to make do.
On one hand, we can look at what actual projection systems foresee for Rodriguez. Steamer, for example, projects a .235/.317/.382 slash line with 14 HR over 94 games - good for a 96 wRC+. That mark was bested by only seven Yankees last season (minimum of 100 PA), three of which (Martin Prado, Francisco Cervelli, and Yangervis Solarte) are no longer with the team. There are three returning starters who finished with a lesser wRC+ (Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Stephen Drew); newcomer Didi Gregorius is in that group, as well.
Is that below-average? Sure. Unsexy? Absolutely. And yet it really isn't all that bad. In fact, it would represent something of an upgrade over what the Yankees have had at DH over the last few seasons. That may be an indictment on the team's ability to fill the position competently rather than praise for Rodriguez, but hey, an improvement is an improvement, right?
In lieu of regurgitating additional projections, thereby riding the coattails of much more mathematically inclined folk, I thought we might be able to glean a bit of information by examining players that were comparable to Alex Rodriguez from a historical perspective. For this, I dug into Bill James' similarity scores (courtesy of Baseball-Reference). These are more for quick and dirty comparisons and/or fun than statistically significant conclusions, but they could offer us some glimmer of home ... or tell us nothing at all.
In terms of overall career value, Rodriguez's five most similar players are Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott, and Rafael Palmeiro. This will be Rodriguez's age-39 season, so let's take a look at how these gentlemen fared at that point in their careers:
Griffey, 2009 - 454 PA, .214/.324/.411, 19 HR, 97 wRC+ Mays, 1970 - 566 PA, .291/.390/.506, 28 HR, 141 wRC+ Robinson, 1975 - 149 PA, .237/.385/.508, 9 HR, 151 wRC+ Ott, 1948 - N/A (Retired after 1947) Palmeiro, 2004 - 651 PA, .258/.359/.436, 23 HR, 105 wRC+
Griffey and Palmeiro were roughly league-average hitters, not unlike Rodriguez's 2013 season or his projections for 2015. Both retired after the following season, Griffey due to age, injuries, and a lack of productivity, and Palmeiro on the heels of a suspension for steroids and/or Vitamin B12 supplements. Mays and Robinson had their last hurrahs (though Robinson missed the majority of the year with injuries), performing right around their career standards before declining and retiring within the next couple of years. That would be lovely, wouldn't it? Even if it came in an abbreviated season? And Ott ... he batted .069/.163/.125 over 82 PA between 1946 and 1947.
In my mind, that group is encouraging on the whole. I would be ecstatic if Rodriguez could bang out double-digit home runs, and have a close to league-average bat overall. Any player-to-player comparison will be pseudo science at best (and entirely inane at worst), but going further and further down the list of similar players continues to offer hope. Hank Aaron was an MVP candidate and an All-Star at 39. Barry Bonds was the MVP, with a 233 wRC+ and 11.6 fWAR (though, he had a bit of help). Babe Ruth had a 157 wRC+. Chipper Jones had a 120 wRC+, Jim Thome managed a 177 wRC+ despite missing fifty games, and Gary Sheffield was right around league-average (92 wRC+ with 19 HR). The downside is still there, with Jimmie Foxx having retired after his age-37 season, and Manny Ramirez stinking up the place before retiring amidst another PED suspension - and yet this is a silver lining hiding in plain sight.
Yes, this is a small sample size in which I am comparing Rodriguez to some of the best players of all time, and, yes, none of these players were coming off of multiple hip/knee surgeries and a season lost to suspension. That does not change the fact that this is the group of players to which Rodriguez should be compared, and, while our expectations should be tempered severely, there is some precedent for greats of the game being productive players at 39 and 40.
What does this mean we can or should expect for Rodriguez? I am not quite sure. I do, however, feel at least a bit more confident that Rodriguez could provide something of value to the team, and I could not ask for much more than that.