Buster Olney: Alex Rodriguez

Hal SteinbrennerJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesHal Steinbrenner is ultimately responsible for the decision on what New York will do with Rodriguez.
There were some great exhibition performances Friday, starting with Matt Harvey, who probably changed the way some Mets fans feel about 2015. When you see an outing like this -- when you see stuff like this -- the possibilities just seem very different, the team's context changing.

The Dodgers' Julio Urias showed why former GM Ned Colletti refused all overtures for him, Jon Lester dazzled, and Russell Martin and knuckleballer R.A. Dickey worked well together.

But in Yankees camp, Alex Rodriguez, playing in his second game, went hitless in three plate appearances Friday night, striking out in his final at-bat when a pitcher blew the ball past him. Rodriguez has about 3½ more weeks of games before the Yankees' evaluators will meet to discuss the composition of the team on Opening Day, and in that room, hitting coach Jeff Pentland, manager Joe Girardi and longtime Yankees official Gene Michael will offer evaluations of Rodriguez's swing and what role they might envision him filling during the 2015 season.

The enmity some folks in the Yankees' organization have for Rodriguez will never go away entirely, because long before his apologies, he deceived them, he accused them and he sued them. But in that meeting, the discussions about his swing will be emotion-free, because the best possible outcome for the Yankees, short of Rodriguez being physically unable to perform and a lasting candidate for the disabled list, is if he can still hit at least a little and the team can recoup at least a little value on the $61 million they still owe him
Miguel CabreraAP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)Miguel Cabrera is reportedly in excellent shape, especially for a guy who had offseason ankle surgery.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- After sitting down with Karl Ravech and John Kruk on Tuesday, Miguel Cabrera downplayed the notion that his physical condition has changed, making fun of himself, joking how he looks without any clothes. He is a large person, and he will never stop being a large person.

But others in the Tigers' organization do see a change in him, after what was probably the greatest conditioning challenge of his career. Cabrera had complicated surgery on his right ankle after the 2014 season, which meant that he basically had to stay off his feet and was limited in his aerobic activity. Other athletes in similar situations have had difficulty keeping weight off, because they can't run or walk and they struggle to adjust entrenched eating habits.

Cabrera didn't get pudgy through a winter of activity; in fact, he looks stronger, as manager Brad Ausmus noted, having spent the winter working on his upper body because he couldn't do other types of exercise, and he is more defined in the middle part of his body, in his waist. He looks more fit than he has since his days with the Marlins.

There is a perception within the Tigers' camp that for Cabrera, the change in his conditioning was more than just killing time until he can get back on the field again. Cabrera is thinking more and more about the arc of his entire career in the choices he makes.

Cabrera turns 32 in April and is devoting himself to being a great player for years to come, at least while he can still control that.

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MLB faces tough decision on Hamilton 

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
Josh Hamilton Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsAngels outfielder Josh Hamilton reportedly suffered a cocaine and alcohol relapse.
JUPITER, Fla. -- Josh Hamilton’s status is still unknown. The Daily News reports that Hamilton suffered a relapse, using alcohol and cocaine.

But the details of what has happened with Hamilton are still sketchy. Maybe even for Major League Baseball officials who have spoken directly to Hamilton. Maybe even to Hamilton himself. Such is the nature of addiction.

As Rob Manfred faces his first major discipline case since he assumed the role of commissioner, he is faced with the question of what to do with a star player -- one of the highest paid in the sport -- who has a long and serious history of addiction.

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A-Rod could face mundane final act 

February, 21, 2015
Feb 21
Joe Girardi, Alex Rodriguez APCompared with two years ago, Joe Girardi sounds a lot more like A-Rod's manager now, not his friend.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez is the opposite of subtle, with personality traits and a history that seemingly guarantee some crazy ending to his playing career. After two decades of spectacular home runs and confessions and a record-setting suspension, even Hollywood screenwriters would have a difficult time imagining an ending that would be a topper to the drama he has produced.

But it may well be that the mechanism that drives Rodriguez out of the game in the months ahead will turn out to be relatively mundane. If Rodriguez cannot hit fastballs any more, he may get squeezed out by a good old-fashioned roster pinch, a time when the Yankees designate him for assignment, he passes through waivers unclaimed and is out of baseball. Because of the past problems between Rodriguez and the Yankees, there is a career lifeline commonly used for veterans in Rodriguez's situation that is simply not available to him. We'll get to that in a moment.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi talked Friday about how Rodriguez must show he deserves playing time, as Andrew Marchand writes. Girardi's tone in speaking about Rodriguez was somewhat different than two years ago, more antiseptic. He sounded more like Rodriguez's manager than his friend.

When he was first asked Friday about Rodriguez's handwritten apology, Girardi quickly veered to reiterate his own feelings about steroid use in baseball, about how it has hurt the game and how players' performances are perceived.

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Lineup questions that must be answered 

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
Yasiel Puig and Bryce Harper Getty ImagesWhere will 24-year-old slugger Yasiel Puig hit this season? And what about 22-year-old Bryce Harper?
When Joe Torre managed the New York Yankees, he liked to put pen to paper and jot down various lineup combinations to see how they might look and feel. His bench coach, Don Zimmer, would do the same, and they would discuss the combinations they had written out, like two mathematicians discussing a proof.

With lineups, however, there are no perfect answers, and no absolutes. Because the variables are changing constantly. Hitters streak or slump. Opposing managers poke and prod for the vulnerabilities in lineups, with different bullpen weapons. But most managers and general managers think about the possible structure of their batting order constantly, sorting through the quandaries.

Some are unwelcome problems. For instance, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg must find a place to hit Ryan Howard, in the season after Howard has been told the team might be better off without him.

But other lineups present interesting puzzles, such as those that follow:

1. Who will hit cleanup for the Marlins?

Marlins manager Mike Redmond is experimenting with different lineups.

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Rafael Soriano and Francisco RodriguezGetty ImagesWith Kenley Jansen out, the Dodgers could turn to Rafael Soriano or K-Rod, both free agents.
The Tampa Bay Rays' record of drafting in Andrew Friedman's time as their general manager was spotty, including the moment when they passed on Buster Posey and chose infielder Tim Beckham. There also were mistakes on free agents such as Pat Burrell.

But Friedman's era in Tampa Bay was an overwhelming success, which is why the Dodgers stalked him with promises of potential and power until he agreed to take over their baseball operations. What the Rays probably did better than anything was build bullpens, year after year, despite constant turnover because of the team's financial limitations.

Consider the composition and work of the Rays' bullpens from 2008-14.

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A-Rod's words will now ring hollow 

February, 15, 2015
Feb 15
Alex RodriguezAlessio Botticelli/GC ImagesAlex Rodriguez has a long way to go to win back the public's trust.

Alex Rodriguez will make himself available to a roomful of reporters sometime in the coming days, in what will amount to his first give-and-take session with the media since he agreed to his one-year suspension.

What will actually be given and what will be taken is not clear, though. After it's over, reporters can say they asked the questions they are expected to ask, and Rodriguez will be able to say he answered the questions asked of him. This is standard operating procedure when a public figure returns from suspension or scandal.

But a lot of the questions asked of Rodriguez will bear little to no meaning, because a lot of what he says -- almost all of it, in fact -- won't be believed. The reason why is that we were all here before

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Tips for how A-Rod could conduct himself 

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
Alex RodriguezJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez needs to try to become A-Rod the player again, not A-Rod the media spectacle.
Alex Rodriguez recently told Barry Bonds he wants Bonds' home run record, and his tone in his meeting with the New York Yankees on Tuesday reflected that ambition, according to a source familiar with the details of the discussion. Rodriguez is 39 years old, hasn't seen a pitch in a major league game in 504 days, and faces a spring training perp walk as he returns from the most notorious suspension in baseball history -- and he is apparently convinced he can come back and not only contribute, but also be great.

Delusional? Probably. He is an old ballplayer, propped up on two surgically repaired hips, and even if you give him the benefit of the doubt -- at your own peril, of course -- and presume he no longer takes performance-enhancing drugs, nobody knows if he can be effective without the benefit of that chemistry.

But while we can rightly doubt his sincerity and wonder whether his career was built in a beaker, no one should ever question how much he loves to play baseball, and at this point does he really have any other choice? Emotional surrender to his current context would be tantamount to embracing the baseball exile that awaits him after his final game.

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A-Rod a mystery for the Yankees 

December, 16, 2014
Alex Rodriguez, Joe GirardiTim Farrell/USA TODAY SportsJoe Girardi and the Yankees face many questions as Alex Rodriguez returns to the team this season.
The strangest spring training saga will begin when the Yankees’ full squad emerges from the clubhouse for their first pre-workout stretch. International star Masahiro Tanaka will be there, and so will Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller and other players of renown, but the platoon of cameras will be focused on a guy with an undefined role: Alex Rodriguez.

Reporters will trace his every movement and log Rodriguez’s interaction with teammates, looking for signs that the others around him might shy away from him. After all, the last time he was with the Yankees, folks on the staff were wary that any conversation they had with him would be subject to subpoena. Will he be embraced by his teammates? Will they keep him at arm’s length, generally? Will they be merely polite with a disgraced player coming back from the longest PED suspension in baseball history, or will they treat him warmly?

The search for signs of awkwardness will continue the first time the Yankees’ infielders move to their positions. Given that the Yankees just signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52 million contract, Headley will go into camp as the third baseman. But players have long respected a pecking order, and whatever you think of Rodriguez, he is still a former MVP, and he is still stalking Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Will A-Rod step in the front of the line, in front of Headley, among those awaiting grounders at third base? Or will Rodriguez defer to Headley?

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PED suspicions still cloud free agency 

November, 7, 2014
Nelson CruzLeon Halip/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz led the majors in HRs, but his past suspension for PED use still worries some when it comes to a deal.
More than a decade ago, general managers elaborated on the murky business of investing in players who may or may not be using performance-enhancing drugs. Within that 2002 New York Times article, a couple of GMs from that time gave voice to the importance and the challenge of speculating:
"It's a fairly routine topic when discussing a player who suddenly is a lot bigger," said Randy Smith, general manager of the Detroit Tigers. "To me, you've got guys who look to enhance their performance and get a contract, and become much different than they were in the past. It's very hard to evaluate. You see guys with slider bat speed all of a sudden become good hitters with tremendous power potential.

"I think it's all over the industry, and I think with all the money that's out there it becomes more relevant."

When a player is acquired, San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers said, "you have to be very cautious if you feel the player is a user."

He added, "You are cautious about doing a long-term deal if he's had one or maybe two big years."

Penalties for drug testing began two years later, and by 2006, even the players' association bought into the idea of strengthening the penalties and working to create a level playing field for a silent union majority that didn’t want to have to think about using drugs to keep up.

But more than a decade after Smith and Towers elaborated on the guessing game that general managers faced, the newest generation of GMs continues to guess, to speculate, to wonder.

Major League Baseball teams are starved for power, and for right-handed hitting particularly

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Here's how Yankees handle A-Rod fiasco 

November, 6, 2014
Alex RodriguezKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesYankees veteran Alex Rodriguez continues to make news off the field.
The Miami Herald story on Alex Rodriguez confirmed what many probably already assumed: that his ardent and angry defense of 2013, his words and his legal strategy, was spectacular deceit.

And by spectacular, I mean sheer enormity, not quality. He always seemed as transparent as a 3-year-old denying an illicit cookie raid with a face smeared in chocolate.

Rodriguez has the tens of millions of dollars needed in an attempt to make a mockery of Major League Baseball's drug-testing system, and he tried, without any regard to the collateral damage.

Because we all really want to forget the ridiculous circus of his Biogenesis defense, highlighted by the chanting and sign-holding A-Rod commission in front of the offices of Major League Baseball, we won't have a full recounting here of the months of untruths.

But it is worth touching on a couple of the most brazen aspects of his conduct to define the lengths of his duplicity, which, with the benefit of hindsight, looks like one giant web of deceit.

1. Michael Weiner, the leader of the players' association, was dying throughout 2013, and after the Biogenesis scandal broke, he represented the implicated players as they faced the evidence and the penalties. One by one, from Ryan Braun to Nelson Cruz, the defendants agreed to what amounted to plea bargains. Everybody, that is, except Alex Rodriguez, who continued to fight the charges all the way through the absurd and protracted arbitration hearing that was highlighted by his walk-out.

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DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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A-Rod runs out of people to blame 

February, 8, 2014
Alex RodriguezElsa/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez dropped his lawsuits against MLB and the players' union this week.
Until Alex Rodriguez was willing to testify under oath, there was no reason to take any of his costly legal maneuverings seriously.

But along the way, before his abrupt capitulation Friday, we needed an abacus to keep track of the attempted diversions, from the gold-plated lawsuits to the beautifully scripted I’m-Not-Going-To-Take-It-Anymore exit from the arbitration hearing to the declaration of innocence on WFAN. This was like the wizard of Oz imploring you to ignore the man behind the curtain.

In the end, none of the machinations changed the essential truth: Rodriguez broke the rules and used performance-enhancing drugs, then tried to get away with it.

A dozen other players were caught in the same Biogenesis net, including Ryan Braun and Nelson Cruz, and, when presented with the evidence, they essentially threw up their hands and acknowledged: I surrender, you got me.

Not Rodriguez, who bypassed two windows of opportunity in which he could take responsibility and accept his punishment like the other players. If he had done so, his relationships with the Yankees and others would’ve been damaged but workable.

Instead, he started flame-throwing blame at just about everybody around him. This included the Yankees, commissioner Bud Selig and the arbitration system negotiated by his union, plus, in his last act of desperation, at the union itself. His lawsuit against the union specifically named Michael Weiner, the beloved former head of the union who passed away from cancer at the end of last year -- someone who spent far too many hours in the last year of his life working to defend Rodriguez, who had cheated and lied over and over.

What a complete waste, of time, of money, of good will, of grace.

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Why MLB fought dirty in PED war 

January, 14, 2014
Far be it from me to suggest that Bud Selig is a historical companion of Abraham Lincoln, or that Rob Manfred is a modern day William Tecumseh Sherman, but bear with me a moment; there is a parallel to be drawn.

After Sherman sacked Atlanta in 1864, there was some question among the Union leaders what Sherman's army should do next. Sherman proposed total war to his superior, Gen. Ulysses Grant: Sherman wanted his army to march through Georgia's civilian population, because that would be most effective against an enemy who had fired the first shot -- an enemy who had instigated the war.

As H.W. Brands writes in "The Man Who Saved The Union," his biography of Grant, Sherman said, "War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; those who brought war on our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. ... You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war."

So Sherman took the fight through Georgia, destroying homes, crops and railroads, raiding livestock and eschewing civility. Long gone were the days when armies stood in lines opposite each other in an open field and traded volleys. Times had changed, and to expect the fight to play out with white-gloved decorum was simply unrealistic, and Lincoln, Grant and Sherman recognized that. They hated war, hated that it had been brought upon them, but they felt it was their responsibility to wage it as effectively as possible and bring it to an end.

Sherman acknowledged that sometimes the Union's foragers exceeded their orders, and there were unseemly acts. But his hope all along was that the war would be so terrible that it would discourage others from waging it ever again.

For a period of two decades, Major League Baseball and the players' association ignored the fight that needed to be waged against individual players using performance-enhancing drugs, fueling the problem with their inaction. The leadership on management side recognized this, and so did the MLBPA, which changed course in 2002 and agreed to drug testing in the face of the practical needs. This is a really important point: The fight against performance-enhancing drugs doesn't belong to MLB's management; it belongs to the management and the players.

It would be convenient for everybody if the players who tried to beat baseball's testing system were predictable in the ways they attempted to succeed.

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A-Rod missed chance to cut a deal 

January, 13, 2014
The best deal that Alex Rodriguez might have made with Major League Baseball would have happened last spring, before Tony Bosch came in from the cold and agreed to be a witness for Major League Baseball. There were talks about a negotiated plea bargain then, deals put on the table.

If Rodriguez had agreed to something last spring, before MLB investigators had all the Biogenesis details from Bosch, Rodriguez might've been able to barter for a suspension for something close to 50 games, or what a first-time offender gets for a first positive PED test.

If he had taken responsibility then, owned up and made his best possible deal, then A-Rod probably would've been back on the field late in the 2013 season, with the whole matter behind him.

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