2007 Major League Player Of The Year: Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez puts up big numbers, but controversy still follows

TAMPA--Only in the crazy Yankees universe could the best player in baseball have three years remaining on his contract and leave $91 million on the table to become a free agent.

When it comes to Alex Rodriguez, that's what's happening. His agent Scott Boras has announced that the third baseman will opt out of his contract and test the free agent waters where Boras believes a 12-year deal in the $30 million a year range--yes, that's $360 million--is attainable.

Upon the completion of the Yankees' two-day organizational meetings here in mid-October, general manager Brian Cashman threw down a challenge to Rodriguez: opt out and you are out of The Bronx.

"If Alex Rodriguez opts out of his contract then we will not participate in free agency," Cashman said at the end of the meetings. "That is accurate and that is definitive."

The Yankees started to lean that way in July, but Cashman said after the American League Division Series defeat to the Indians that he would "recommend" that stance to ownership. Yet, Cashman's words in mid-October were the strongest on the subject.

"We understand that we can't control what teams do and what teams don't bid on Alex," Boras said. "Alex enjoys playing in New York."

Rodriguez batted .314/.422/.645 and led the majors with 54 home runs and 156 RBIs this season. His production made him an easy choice to win Baseball America's 2007 Major League Player of the Year award. He's won the award, in its 10th season, twice previously--in 2000 and 2002.

Should He Stay Or Go?

Showering Rodriguez in praise for his remarkable production doesn't broach the major topic of the times, however. What's he's done in the past has been awe-inspiring, but what happens next has become the matter at hand.

Now that Rodriguez is opting out of his contract with the Yankees, he's set to sign what could be the final contract of what already has been a Hall of Fame career at 32, a pact that would dwarf the record-setting 10-year, $252 million he inked following the 2000 season.

Boras says Rodriguez getting a 12-year deal isn't out of the question, and painted a picture where the team committing a dozen seasons to his client would make money with Rodriguez.

"In 2000 the YES network didn't exist," said Boras, who insists regional sports networks have changed the financial landscape of baseball, providing deep revenue streams. "Now it's worth $3 billion to $3.5 billion easily. What is it going to be worth in 12 years when Alex will be at the end of his career, chasing records and people wanting to say, 'I saw him play.' "

Asked if Rodriguez was going to seek a 12-year deal, Boras didn't deny it. And since it's generally been assumed that Rodriguez will be looking for $30 million a year, the total value of the contract could come out to a whopping $360 million.

"The key thing for Alex and his family is that he wants to be in the place where he is going to end his career," Boras said. "He wants to be in one spot with a positive chance to win a World (Series) championship."

To make his point about Rodriguez' ability to pay for himself, Boras invented IPN, which stands for Iconic magnetism, historic Performance and Network value. The historic performance points mostly to Rodriguez' pursuit of Barry Bonds' new home run record. A-Rod has hit 518 homers compared to Bonds' 762, and while Bonds isn't quite done yet, Rodriguez figures to chase him down over the course of his next contract.

"The same core players were there in 2002 and they drew 3.4 million (fans) and now they draw 4.3 million," Boras said of Rodriguez' impact at the gate.

When the talk was about a seven-year deal for $210 million, the Angels were mentioned as the leading candidate to land A-Rod. They have looked into a regional sports network but haven't signed a deal with one (or created one). The Red Sox and Mets, who have their own networks, have surfaced as candidates, though it's unclear how serious their interest is.

As for Rodriguez' year, it was special from the start and turned the ocean of 2006 boos into chants of "MVP, MVP, MVP."

Winning Over The Fans

So enamored with Rodriguez were Yankee Stadium fans that not one boo was heard during the Division Series when the Yankees, for the third straight season, were eliminated. Rodriguez, who was 3-for-29 (.103) in the previous two ALDS meltdowns, went 4-for-15 (.267) and hit a home run in the deciding Game Four loss.

In four seasons with the Yankees, Rodriguez has had some of the best seasons ever by a righthanded hitter in Yankee Stadium. He's averaged 43 home runs per season in New York, has never posted an on-base percentage below .375 and even has racked up 88 stolen bases over that span.

However, the Yankees have won only one playoff series in that span and have lost their last four postseason series, including the historic collapse in the 2004 AL Championship Series, when they blew a three-game lead to the Red Sox. This year, for the first time since 1997, the Yankees didn't win the AL East and had to settle for the wild card.

As a Yankee, Rodriguez has hit .245 with 21 strikeouts, three home runs and just six RBIs in 94 at-bats in 20 playoff games. After this season, Rodriguez has respectable career postseason numbers of .279/.361/.483 in 39 games (147 at-bats), with seven home runs. In the regular season, he's a career .306/.389/.578 hitter.

Soon after this year's playoff loss to Cleveland, Rodriguez visited with Boras in Southern California and was updated on what Boras' strategy will be in regards to his client. Everybody knows the Yankees could use a brand name to open the new Yankee Stadium in 2009. And Rodriguez never looked more comfortable in his skin than he did this past season.

Still, 12 years for a 32-year-old player at that money is a monster investment, even for a team with the Yankees' resources. It's one the Yankees said they weren't going to offer if Rodriguez opted to hit the free agency market.

Of course the question that begs to be answered if Rodriguez flees is this: Who replaces him at third, where he played well enough to win his first Gold Glove? And who takes over the cleanup spot?

The answer doesn't likely come from within the organization. Strong-armed second baseman Robinson Cano and his emerging power can be shifted from second to third, but he isn't going to crack the 40-homer mark, never mind 50. The Yankees could sign Lowell--originally drafted by the Yankees back in 1996--away from the Red Sox, but his career bounced back in a big way after he got to hitter-friendly Fenway Park, so his long-term production isn't certain to mirror his recent success. The White Sox' Joe Crede, who had back surgery this summer, will be on the trade market and likely dealt before he becomes a free agent following the 2008 season.