By Ernie Palladino
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The Yankees’ overall attitude toward Alex Rodriguez has made him sound like the black-sheep cousin who just needed a place to crash for a couple of days and wound up staying a month.
They’re kind of stuck with him; unable to tell him to pack his things and get out, uncomfortable when talking about him to other relatives.
But let the bum get a little industrious, and the view changes. Hang a few pictures, mow the lawn once a week, and all of a sudden the guy isn’t such a leech.
Judging by recent events, the Yanks may have to come to the understanding that their $22 million PED albatross may provide more of a boost than they ever thought possible. They knew going in about the designated hitter role he’ll play most of the time. And they knew his surgically renovated hips would allow him to move sufficiently at third to occasionally spell Chase Headley.
But his start at first Sunday in place of Mark Teixeira indicated that the former All-Star third baseman and shortstop can play that side of the infield, too. Given the state of Teixeira’s luck the past few seasons, having Rodriguez as an adequate injury replacement could turn into a real benefit.
Give A-Rod a few good turns there, add a few homers, and the Yanks might soon enough narrow down the field of wayward cousins to his accused PED-trafficker cousin, Yuri.
Rodriguez’ first-ever start at first came the same day Teixeira took a pitch off the side of his right knee in a minor league game. Though bruised, it’s not supposed to keep the slugging first baseman out of action. But after Teixeira missed significant parts of the last two seasons with a wrist injury, as well as a sprained lats muscle, the hierarchy will keep a close eye on him throughout the season.
Garrett Jones would come next if the 34-year-old starter goes down.
Rodriguez might just be a good second alternative, at least going by the spring he’s having. His 12 hits has produced a .324 average, and his three homers in 16 games leads the squad. Right now, he’s a better choice than Headley or catcher Brian McCann, two starters Joe Girardi impressed for first-base duties.
Even more encouraging in terms of first base, Rodriguez’ three-inning stint there produced no errors. He actually made a nice play as he stuck with a bobbled grounder in the hole and got it to Nathan Eovaldi in time.
Aside from the hip issue that may or may not eventually affect his movement, Rodriguez’s facility at first should come as no surprise. It’s not exactly the hot corner, where cat-like reflexes and a strong throwing arms are prerequisites for high-level achievement. Nor is it shortstop, where one’s range and dexterity dictate success.
First base is mainly a power hitter’s position. The better ones turn a fine 3-6-3 double play and pick out the short hop throws from third and short better than the others. Teixeira does all those things.
But when it comes right down to it, if Rodriguez can pick up the nuances of footwork and the bunt responsibilities, he’ll be fine. Aside from seeing the field from a different perspective, there is no reason he should not succeed, at least in the short term, as a power-hitting option there.
The best scenario involves Teixeira staying healthy the whole season. Before he took the pitch off his knee, he said he felt the best he has in three years. As encouraging as that sounds, the first baseman still has to prove he can stay in the lineup and produce offensively.
If he can’t, Girardi may have to use A-Rod. The erstwhile third-base great may well get another test run there Wednesday. If he displays an increasing comfort level, so too might Girardi’s lukewarm confidence in him grow.
The Yanks still see A-Rod as the troublesome relative who has well-overstayed his welcome.
Let him become an occasional option at first, and those views might change.
They might even give him a smile at the dinner table.
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