Alex Rodriguez is one of the most disliked players on the New York Yankees and in all of baseball. Although it is hard to measure, Rodriguez may be one of the most disliked players in the history of both the Yankees and baseball. His poor media relations, steroid use, enormous salary and contentious relationship with Yankee icon Derek Jeter have all contributed to this.
For the first eight full years of his career, Rodriguez was an amazing player, posting an OPS+ of 148 while playing gold glove caliber defense at shortstop. By the time he joined the Yankees, while still only 27 years old, Rodriguez was a .308 hitter with 345 home runs and was all but assured of becoming the greatest shortstop since Honus Wagner, possibly even eclipsing the great PIrate himself. Rodriguez began his tenure with the Yankees by agreeing to move to third base, thus forfeiting the possibility of joining the ranks of the greatest shortstops ever. Tellingly, Rodriguez to this day has never received any credit for this gesture which was made in deference to Derek Jeter, who was the Yankees captain and star shortstop at that time.
Although his first four years with the Yankees were excellent, Rodriguez has been in steady decline since 2007. During the years from 2007-2012 his OPS declined every season from 1.067 in 2007 to .783 last year. During those years he has transitioned from being a superstar, to being very good to being good. In addition to his declining production, Rodriguez has also been injury prone in recent years. From 2001-2007, Rodriguez played 150 or more games every year, but he has not played more than 140 games in any season since 2008. This year, he is likely to miss at least a third of the season.
Declining production has contributed to the existing narrative about Rodriguez making him even less liked by Yankee fans now then probably at any point during his years in pinstripes. It is certainly within the rights of Yankee fans to dislike Rodriguez for whatever reason they like. Choosing favorites, liking some players more than others and rooting against some players is part of the game. After all, in the 1960s, fans in San Francisco booed Willie Mays.
The Rodriguez storyline is that one of baseball's greatest players ever is now a shell of himself racked by injuries and the hangover from steroid abuse. While the full story of Rodriguez's steroid abuse remains unknown, and he has lost a lot of time in recent years to injury, this storyline obscures a major point. To a great extent, Rodriguez is simply guilty of getting old and declining accordingly. The decline that Rodriguez will experience in the next few years is inevitable and largely due to aging. Since 1900 there have only been 26 seasons where second baseman, shortstop or third baseman over the age of 36 has managed an OPS+ of 110 or better. Given that, when he was healthy last year, Rodriguez was quite good for his age. There have only been 14 seasons where a player in that category posted an OPS+ of 120, suggesting that for infielders over 37 staying healthy and being an impact offensive player is very unusual.
Among the greatest third baseman of the post-war era, Mike Schmidt hit very well at age 36 and 37; and Chipper Jones was a solid OPS+ 120 type hitter until he retired at age 40. Wade Boggs and George Brett were essentially league average hitters after they turned 38. Eddie Mathews' last good year as a full time player was when he was 33. Rodriguez's numbers since turning 35, put him right in the middle of this group.
A healthy Rodriguez will likely bring some value to the Yankees as he can still probably hit better than most and play a passable third base, but it is hard to imagine him ever being an star or even much of a real impact player again. Despite the injuries and other difficulties in recent years this was always going to be true of Rodriguez in 2013 and beyond. The problem is not that Rodriguez is doing anything wrong. He, like everybody else on the planet, is getting older. The Yankees are more to blame because they renegotiated Rodriguez's contract following the 2008 season, committing themselves to paying hundreds of millions of dollars for his decline period.
If the Yankees regret signing Rodriguez to this contract, and they would be foolish if they did not, they have only themselves to blame. Stories they tell the media about Rodriguez not taking care of himself, being injury prone or being linked to steroids, are not relevant now. When the Yankees signed Rodriguez to his current contract the knew the day, and years, would come when they would be stuck with an aging and declining player. That time has arrived now, not due to injury or substances but simply the passage of time.