A-Rod optimistic heading into season
TAMPA, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez points to his left shoulder and then holds up his left thumb. He mentions his right knee, which ached almost the entire 2011 season. Some years, it's always something, isn't it?
"It's definitely been frustrating," Rodriguez said. "Early in my career, I took it for granted playing three, four, five seasons and missing one game. That was a whole lot of fun."
There aren't many questions about the 2012 Yankees. Their lineup is deep, their rotation solid. General manager Brian Cashman has done a nice job of mixing youth and experience up and down the roster.
"That's the one great thing about playing for the New York Yankees," Rodriguez said. "Every year, you have an opportunity to win a championship. For us, going to a World Series is not enough. It's obviously winning it."
One of the things the Yanks can't know, one of the keys to everything they hope to accomplish, is A-Rod's health. Was 2011 his new reality? Was playing just 99 games a result of all the wear and tear that comes with 18 Major League seasons and 2,402 games?
Or was 2011 simply a bad year, a bad year in terms of health, a bad year in terms of production? Will this spring be a fresh start, both symbolically and otherwise?
"Obviously, you guys saw me walk around [last season]," Rodriguez said. "I don't think I was myself. But make no mistake, we're in a no-excuses business and a results-oriented business. If I'm on that field -- whether I'm 50, 80 or 100 percent -- I have to produce and help the team win. Last year for me was a disappointing year. This is a new year."
The Yankees have zero doubt that Rodriguez, even at 36, is still capable of being a dominant player -- if he can stay on the field. To back up that belief, there's the fact that he was still easily one of baseball's 20 best players last season before being forced to undergo right knee surgery.
Rodriguez's knee was never really right after that, and his numbers declined accordingly. This offseason was devoted to healing. He flew to Germany to have blood injections recommended by Kobe Bryant in his knee and shoulder. Rodriguez said his left thumb is fine, but needed several weeks to heal.
Rodriguez is clearly optimistic about what's ahead. He mentions a whole series of exercises designed to maintain his flexibility, range of motion and core strength. Rodriguez said that he finally has learned that less can be more in terms of work.
Rodriguez's presence in the middle of the lineup impacts everyone, especially Robbie Cano in front of him and Mark Teixeira behind him.
Manager Joe Girardi said he'll monitor Rodriguez's playing time, will DH him some, and in some cases, will force him to take days off.
"It's more watching and listening," Girardi said. "I imagine he's going to be the guy he was before he got hurt, and he was pretty good."
Rodriguez batted .295 before the knee surgery, .191 after it. His overall production has declined the past four years. That's best reflected in an .896 OPS since 2008. In the 10 seasons before 2008, his OPS was .982.
Rodriguez answered every question patiently, declining to make excuses for 2011. He also emphatically believes he still has great days ahead.
"You have to stay healthy," he said. "You have to avoid the injury bug. I'd like to go out and play north of 145-150 games and let the chips fall where they may."
Rodriguez has not always seemed comfortable in the spotlight that comes from playing with the Yankees. But on Saturday, he seemed genuinely excited about the start of a new season, excited not just to get going again, but to be part of the Yanks.
Other than the three famous veterans -- Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Rodriguez -- the Yankees are a surprisingly young team. Rodriguez is accepting that his role is to set an example as well as to be productive.
Rodriguez said he'd enjoyed watching the Giants win another Super Bowl and the excitement generated by new Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin in the past few weeks. He said watching the Knicks was fun again, but that there were some larger lessons, too, and he hopes to carry them through his 19th season.
"There have been so many great things happen in New York, we feel like we want to jump in the party," he said. "The great thing about Linsanity, it kind of reminds you of how fun the game should be. For someone who has been playing a long time, if for one second you've taken the game for granted, it reminds you how much fun the game is. If he's still looking for a place to crash, he can crash at my apartment. Imagine the tabloids then. I know how he feels."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.