TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Rodriguez described himself Friday as being “at ease” for the start of spring training, a significant difference from a year ago, when he was coming off a season-long suspension and some questioned whether he would even make the team.
That question will not be asked this year, though there are still plenty regarding the 40-year-old designated hitter.
Among the most prevalent: Can Rodriguez duplicate, or come close to duplicating, his output from last season, one A-Rod himself described as a “Cinderella” year?
Alan Cockrell, who served as the Yankees’ assistant hitting coach last season and was elevated to the top position for this season, said that based on what he’s seen, he believes A-Rod can.
“Baseball’s a funny game, but I don’t see any reason why not, I really don’t,” Cockrell said Saturday. “He takes such good care of himself and he prepares so well and he’s so diligent in that preparation, I really don’t see why he couldn’t.”
To the surprise of just about everyone, including A-Rod himself, he led the Yankees in homers last season with 33. He finished with a .250 batting average, .356 on-base percentage and .486 slugging percentage — respectable numbers that would have been even better had he not gone into a tailspin during the final two months. After entering August with a .282/.386/.544 slash line, A-Rod went .191/.300/.377 the rest of the way.
Rodriguez said Friday that he altered his offseason conditioning because of how last season ended.
“I ran out of gas in August,” he said. “My energy kind of picked up again in September, I just stunk. So one of the things adjusted for 2016 is to kind of pace myself a little bit more and use spring training as a ramping up instead of coming here ready to go on Day One, which I was last year.”
Rodriguez, who turns 41 on July 27, has spent only a couple of days in the batting cage, but Cockrell said he looks further along than he did at this point a year ago.
“Maybe I didn’t see him as much last year as I’m seeing him right now, but I would have to say, yeah, he does,” Cockrell said. “He’s in great shape. We see all the quick twitch and everything that we saw last year, and it’s even better right now.”
Joe Girardi indicated that Rodriguez doesn’t seem like a player in his 22nd spring training.
“He looks like he’s ready to go,” Girardi said. “He’s healthy, he looks strong . . . It’s really hard to tell because I’ve only seen him one or two times in the cage, but physically he feels good.”
Girardi said at least one reason for that could be the day-to-day work expected from A-Rod. At this time last year, in addition to the myriad questions about coming back from suspension, there were those about playing the field. Although Chase Headley had been signed to a four-year, $52-million contract to start at third, Rodriguez took his share of ground balls there. And then there was the attention blitz that followed his every move around the first-base bag as the Yankees gave him some early work there, a career first.
That sideshow has been absent this year, and will continue to be, as the Yankees made it clear well before camp that A-Rod now and forever is a DH.
“I think he’s probably a little bit further along at this point than he was last year, but I think he has a better understanding of what it takes to be a DH and what he needs to do,” Girardi said. “And we were trying to run him out to the field and there were things we were doing last year that he got sore a little bit at times, just like any normal infielder would, but he doesn’t have to deal with that this year.”