Imagine a world where the New York Yankees didn’t trade for Alex Rodriguez. The results will surprise you indeed.
My friend Mike Miranti loves the New York Yankees.
He goes to several games a year, knows the team’s history well, and bleeds pinstripes. Thus, I wasn’t entirely surprised when he texted me an interesting query a week or so ago.
“What if the Yankees never traded for Alex Rodriguez?” he said. “It’d be a cool story for you to write.”
He’s certainly not wrong. The epic tale of Alex Rodriguez, his then-record breaking contract, and subsequent history of the Yankees is one every true-blue fans knows.
Here’s the short version. After the 2003 season, expected third baseman Aaron Boone tore his ACL during a pickup basketball game. This violated his contract, which the Yankees subsequently voided. As a result, the young and speedy slugger Alfonso Soriano was traded to the Texas Rangers for Rodriguez, and the rest is history.
But what many people don’t know is that prior to this deal happening, Alex Rodriguez almost wound up on…the hated Boston Red Sox. It would have been a straight-up trade for Manny Ramirez and then-prospect Jon Lester. However, because the trade meant Rodriguez voluntarily taking a pay cut, the MLBPA didn’t approve it.
But what if they did? Baseball would have changed. Keep in mind, the Yankees won a single World Series with Rodriguez while Boston has since won three since 2004.
Things would have been a lot different had Alex Rodriguez gone to Fenway. How different, you ask?
Setting the stage/2004
First things first, the ground rules. The meat of this story, alternate history, whatever, happens from 2004-2009. That means when it comes to what happened after 2010, just assume business as usual. Everything from batting titles to championships from 2010 and on happened as we remember.
The same goes for parts of free agency. For example, the Yankees still sign Johnny Damon ahead of 2006, the Red Sox still do the Josh Beckett trade and sign J.D. Drew, etc.
This also means in 2003, the Yankees still won the AL Pennant off Boone’s walk-off home run and then lost to the Florida Marlins in the World Series. In fact, everything about baseball as we know it prior to 2004 happened still. Moving on.
This also means, for the sake of this story, the MLBPA approves the Red Sox trading for Alex Rodriguez. Under the terms of the deal, Boston received Rodriguez. His reduced salary puts six years and $151 million left on the deal, plus his opt-out clauses. In this case, he only gets the one after 2007 instead of after every season leading up to and including then. He’s installed at shortstop, where he always was a superior defender to Yankees legend Derek Jeter.
Meanwhile, the Texas Rangers would have received Manny Ramirez, then-pitching prospect Jon Lester, and cash.
The Chicago White Sox, needed as a third team for financial purposes, also would have done well. They would have received incumbent Sawx shortstop Nomar Garciaparra while sending Magglio Ordoñez to Boston. For the sake of this story, they’ll also receive Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon.
And now, on with the show!
The big twist here is simple. Boone never tears his ACL. No, he forgoes his pickup basketball one particular day to stay at home, and that’s enough. He heads into Yankees spring training as the incumbent third baseman looking to build off of a strong but streaky 2003.
The Yankees also still have Alfonso Soriano at second base, fresh off a year in which he hit .290 with 38 home runs and 91 RBIs. For a team that lost the World Series the year before and also lost Andy Pettitte to free agency, the Bronx Bombers look strong. Remember, Gary Sheffield is now the everyday right fielder.
But the Red Sox look strong too. On top of their new star addition, Raul Ibañez has been signed to alleviate the loss of Ramirez. This means the heart of Boston’s lineup is A-Rod, David Ortiz, and Ibañez. As Walter Sobchak once said, not exactly a lightweight.
Both teams go toe to toe throughout the season, but the Yankees aren’t willing to part with prospects to trade for pitching. Owner George Steinbrenner says if you can’t beat the Red Sox, outslug them. As a result, general manager Brian Cashman pulls the trigger on July 29 and trades Boone to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In return, the Yankees receive impending free agent Adrian Beltre. It’s his contract year and the Dodgers won’t pay him, so it’s an easy spin.
The deal is a hit. Beltre is a natural fit with the Yankees, who win the AL East by a single game. However, despite a strong effort against Boston in the ALCS, the Red Sox bats make minced meat out of the Yankees’ pitching. Boston wins the pennant in six games before sweeping the World Series.
Needless to say, Steinbrenner is livid. He makes it very clear that if Cashman and manager Joe Torre don’t deliver a World Series win in 2005, they’ll be out of jobs.
Sure enough, Cashman kicks into high gear. Remember, the Yankees never traded for Alex Rodriguez and thus have some payroll flexibility. Steinbrenner, never shy about writing big checks, has the pen ready.
Cashman starts simple and re-signs Beltre to a long-term contract, let’s say five years and $75 million with an option. But now, the pitching needs addressing. In real life, the Yankees traded for aging veteran Randy Johnson and then signed Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright to lucrative deals. In this timeline, these moves never happened.
Rather, Cashman engages the full-court press and pulls off the ultimate power move. When Boston’s championship high is still going, he signs Pedro Martinez at four years, $60 million. Beantown erupts in shock and boos. Then, Cashman reaches out to a familiar face and signs veteran David Wells to come back for a third tour of duty.
Boston meanwhile, has a quiet offseason. Veteran Brian Giles is added to play right field after Ordoñez leaves in free agency. Everything else stays as is.
In the season, the new-look Yankees are out for blood. The pitching is stronger and further boosted by the arrival of Chien-Mien Wang. At the deadline, Soriano is traded for prospects and Robinson Cano debuts.
New York wins the AL East again, sweeps Boston in the ALDS, and then rolls to a World Series win as the city roars.
The 2006 offseason brings more tears for Red Sox fans as Damon signs with the Yankees, who make their own moves. Wells’ contract is now expired and the rotation has a hole. Cashman, taking a risk, pounces on a pitcher who has a lot of upside despite some risks: A.J. Burnett.
Burnett signs a four-year deal and has a rough first six weeks in New York, but finds his groove after some kind words from Torre. The walks are high, but the lineup has his back. More importantly, Burnett just has a knack for beating the Red Sox. More often than not, Alex Rodriguez swings and looks foolish at his curveball.
But the Yankees stumble a bit in 2006. Remember, Hideki Matsui breaks his wrist and is limited to 51 games. This leads Cashman to trade for Bobby Abreu, as he did in real life. The Yankees defeat a tough Detroit Tigers team in the ALDS, but are absolutely exhausted. They get swept by the Oakland Athletics in the ALCS.
Boston, meanwhile, has a late-season collapse for the ages and the Red Sox miss the playoffs. Alex Rodriguez, who was the AL MVP in 2004 and 2005, wins the award for a third-straight year. Suddenly, he’s thinking about his future with an opt-out looming.
Prior to the 2006 season, with Alex Rodriguez entrenched at shortstop, the Josh Beckett trade happens as we remember it.
Boston receives Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell from the Marlins, while shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez heads to Florida. This is a big risk Boston takes despite Rodriguez’s opt-out, but Theo Epstein is confident he can re-sign his MVP. This is going to be important later on.
As for the season, the Yankees are still a little banged up from 2006. This is because, despite a recent World Series win, the regular season is constantly a race with the Red Sox. Even with Boston’s 2006 collapse, they didn’t make it easy for the Yankees to clinch the division.
Moreover, the Red Sox are angry entering 2007. They too are feeling a little banged up, and Alex Rodriguez’s opt-out is a minor distraction. Still, Ortiz fully embraces his Big Papi nickname and rallies the troops. Everyone seems to have forgotten that they DID win in 2004. They DID break the curse. This might be A-Rod’s last year in Boston, so they’re ready to pounce on another World Series trophy.
It can’t be scripted better. Boston is hot out of the starting gate and makes every game a battle for opposing teams. New York tries to keep up, but Pedro Martinez’s arm is tired. After dealing with a few bumps and bruises his first couple of years in New York, his shoulder just gives out. He tries, but just can’t as he throws fewer than 100 innings.
Boston, on the other hand, wins the division and the pennant, sweep the Colorado Rockies, and Alex Rodriguez is named World Series MVP. After taking a week to think about it, he then makes his next move.
Tired of still living in Derek Jeter’s shadow, not to mention Ortiz’s, A-Rod opts out of his contract and signs another record-setting deal.
His new team? The New York Mets.
2008 is a bittersweet season for both teams. Boston is absolutely reeling from losing Alex Rodriguez to free agency, and the Yankees are starting to show their age. Joe Torre retires in the offseason and is succeeded by Joe Girardi. On top of that, the Tampa Bay Rays have come out of nowhere and are now a legitimate contender.
This means the Yankees and Red Sox are locked in a battle of wills for the AL Wild Card. Boston tries to grind it out, but the Yankees have an advantage. Thanks to Cashman’s shrewd moves in the preceding years, a young core of pitchers are now properly developed and ready for the majors.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen. In one timeline, the Yankees made some bad moves and rushed their youngsters. This time, however, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy are fully prepared. Joba Chamberlain, exciting though he is as a starter, quickly becomes Mariano Rivera’s setup man. This group ensures that New York’s inconsistent lineup has pitchers who can keep opposing bats at bay.
Tampa Bay clinches the AL East, leaving the Yankees and Red Sox to battle for the Wild Card. On the last day of the season, the Yankees clinch it on the back of Mike Mussina’s first 20-win season. In the ALCS, despite capturing well-timed lightning in a bottle, New York falls to the Rays in seven games.
2009 and epilogue
The Red Sox, fueled by the rivalry, do all they can to best the Yankees in the offseason, but they just can’t. New York strikes literal gold on several levels, starting with Beltre. He signs a six-year, $100 million extension prior to 2009, ensuring he’ll be a Yankee through at least 2015.
Cashman then adds to the pitching staff and signs CC Sabathia to lead the young corps of Hughes, Kennedy, and Chamberlain. Mark Teixeira is added to give the Yankees a reliable power bat. New York absolutely rolls to the World Series in 2009, going undefeated in the postseason. Next offseason, on the Steinbrenners’ orders, Cashman trades Kennedy to the Detroit Tigers for Curtis Granderson.
But where is Alex Rodriguez in all of this? After all, his trade to Boston set everything in motion. Well, since everyone deserves a happy ending, here’s A-Rod’s.
After getting off to a rough start in 2008, rumors quickly circulate that Rodriguez and manager Willie Randolph aren’t getting along. The clubhouse is lost. Randolph is fired, and the Mets finish strong despite missing the playoffs.
Unfortunately for Rodriguez, the Mets’ issues extend into the front office and for a time, he’s a great player on a so-so team. The Mets make the playoffs a few times with him, but are often eliminated early. Leaving Boston starts to look like a mistake.
Then, in 2013, the Biogenesis scandal hits. Alex Rodriguez, who already admitted to steroid use in 2009, is suspended for the 2014 season and his legacy is changed forever.
That is, until 2015. Rodriguez comes back and owns his mistakes. He is apologetic and understanding. He also appears to be in great shape, but not too much.
Now almost 40 years old, Alex Rodriguez sounds like he knows the end is near. The Mets rally behind him, trade for Yoenis Cespedes, and make it to the World Series.
There, though A-Rod’s overall showing is quiet, the Mets win the World Series against the Kansas City Royals. Speaking to reporters during the clubhouse celebration, Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez officially retires as a player.
Baseball’s greatest asset is its long and storied history. For over 100 years, players have moved from team to team, told story after story, and had moment after moment.
In the case of Alex Rodriguez, almost everything he did on or off the field began a chain reaction. He was just that influential as a player regardless of whose uniform he wore at the time.
Alex Rodriguez was great as a Yankee. There’s no question about that. But for all his talent, winning just one ring in pinstripes never quite seemed enough.
The story you just read never happened, sure, but it’s certainly fun to think about. As we wait for baseball to return, perhaps more conversations like this one can be had.