There is less than a week to go before the Yankees begin filtering into the home clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field, unzipping the bags that were sent south from New York on Friday. With Hot Stove season about to conclude, let's take one last winter look into the Inbox:
With the latest round of performance-enhancing drug allegations and rumblings of hip trouble, is there a chance the Yankees can escape the $114 million left on Alex Rodriguez's contract?
-- Justin N., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
This was the most common question asked this week, so let's not waste any time getting to it. The short answer is that it's extremely unlikely, though we shouldn't be surprised by reports that the Yankees plan to go through Rodriguez's contract with a fine-toothed comb to explore their options once Major League Baseball's investigation is complete.
Rodriguez has denied any wrongdoing through a spokesperson, but even if it is found to be true that he received PEDs from the Biogenesis clinic, it would still only count as Rodriguez's first offense under the collectively-bargained Joint Drug Agreement. That could produce a 50-game suspension (during which Rodriguez would not be paid), but would not necessarily be grounds to void a contract. The Collective Bargaining Agreement, not individual teams, dictates repercussions for PED use. Those repercussions are restricted to suspensions and bans based on the number of positive tests; voiding of contracts is not included. There's no precedent to voiding a contract under those conditions; remember, the Yanks looked into voiding Jason Giambi's contract in 2004 and were unsuccessful.
So what are the choices? The Yankees could release A-Rod and eat $114 million -- a figure which would still count against the luxury tax, offering no help to Hal Steinbrenner's budget plans -- or they could trigger a messy divorce battle by trying to buy their way out of the deal. Rodriguez could also retire and forfeit the remaining money on his contract, but the odds of that happening aren't very good.
That brings us to the Albert Belle route, where Rodriguez would collect his full salary if it's decided that he must retire because he is physically unable to continue playing due to his hip condition. The Yankees would be refunded approximately 85 percent of his salary by insurance, but since Rodriguez's superstar doctors and the Yanks have both agreed that he should be back on the field and productive in 2013, that scenario doesn't seem terribly likely, either.
The most probable outcome is that the plan stays exactly as it was before the Miami New Times article came out -- A-Rod will rehab from surgery as a Yankee, with hopes of rejoining the big league club after the All-Star break. Beyond that, who knows? The chances of him finishing the 2017 season as a healthy and productive player at age 42 are questionable, but many suspected that would be the case when the Yankees offered the massive deal in the first place. We can be sure about one thing: Now, there will be much more noise surrounding his return.
Do you see Brett Gardner shifting over to center and Curtis Granderson moving to left field?
-- John P., Hyde Park, N.Y.
I do. The Yankees are keeping their options open and we probably won't know for sure until we actually see Granderson standing in left field, but there's a strong case to be made that Gardner is a better defensive choice and the Yanks realize that. There's some question about how Granderson would adjust to left field, but I wouldn't be too concerned about that. No matter how they're aligned, the outfield of Gardner, Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki promises to be solid defensively.
What are the chances that Eduardo Nunez plays third base this year, leaving Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner to split time at designated hitter?
-- Mike D., New York City
I don't see it, at least on a regular basis. If the Yankees felt that Nunez was ready to handle third base for a full season, they probably wouldn't have dug up the $12 million to bring Youkilis on board. Nunez will have to adjust to a utility role if he's on the big league roster. In a reversal from the shortstop-or-nothing stance we heard last year, general manager Brian Cashman is now saying that they could put Nunez anywhere except catcher or pitcher. Youkilis should be the Opening Day third baseman and Hafner will DH against right-handed pitching.
Has Nunez's trade value dropped so low that the Yankees couldn't get a utility infielder or a fourth outfielder for him? His fielding may not be Bronx material, but he could start for a few clubs elsewhere.
-- Andrew S., Fairport, N.Y.
If the Yankees were entertaining trading Nunez for that type of player, they would have to take a step back and realize that Nunez might still be a better option than what they could find on the trade front. Nunez has shown promise that his bat will translate at the big league level, and even with his fielding issues, I would think you'd rather roll the dice and take another shot at making the utility role stick for him. That's the plan for this spring, and if it doesn't work, Nunez can always be their DH against lefties, or go down to Triple-A to keep working on his defensive skills.
Why wasn't Mason Williams invited to Spring Training? Could he get any playing time this spring?
-- Michael B., Windermere, Fla.
Williams is coming off surgery to repair his left labrum, which ended his season after he attempted a diving catch in August, but he's expected to be fully recovered and ready to go this spring. He's probably one year away from a full invite, but Williams snuck into a few games last spring with the big league squad, and manager Joe Girardi seemed interested in seeing him. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Williams come over from Minor League camp and get a few at-bats or pinch-running opportunities again.