Image: Alex Rodriguez
Andrew Gombert  /  EPA file
Star infielder Alex Rodriguez has opted out of his long-term deal with the New York Yankees, leaving only a few Major League Baseball teams that are likely to spring for his outsized salary demands.
By
NBCSports.com contributor
updated 11/1/2007 8:23:41 PM ET 2007-11-02T00:23:41

Boasting statistics in the stratosphere — 54 home runs and 156 runs batted in during 2007 among them — Alex Rodriguez can make the case he’s worth more than the $22 million he earned with the New York Yankees last season. Problem is, few teams can pay such a salary; fewer still want to replace their starting third basemen at that price.

So who will hire one of the best players in baseball history?

For any franchise handing out less than $100 million in team salaries — 23 out of 30 squads in 2007 — ­ giving one player 25 percent or so of the entire payroll seems unlikely, if not ludicrous. That leaves seven teams who realistically might bid on A-Rod, who announced through his agent this week that he is opting out of his Yankee contract. They are the two New York teams, the two L.A. teams, the Chicago White Sox, Boston and Seattle.

(Some might ask: Why not the Chicago Cubs? They're right on the cusp of the $100 million annual payroll and might approve crazy expenditures to end their century-long championship drought. But the franchise is to be sold soon, so it’s doubtful executives would engage in a bidding war. The Cubs also spent a record $300 million on players a year ago and seem to be happy with third baseman Aramis Ramirez.)

Back to the seven contenders:

The Yankees are out. Executive Hank Steinbrenner was quite insulted Rodriguez chose free agency, and A-Rod says there's too much turmoil in New York — a new manager, free agents including reliever Mariano Rivera who may leave, and the like. Though the Yankees spend almost $200 million on players annually — more by any other team by almost one-third —team executives have been displeased with Rodriguez’s performance when it matters most, in the playoffs.

Boston’s out. Remember when the Red Sox were dying to nab A-Rod in a convoluted trade with Texas that included a pay cut for Rodriguez? That failed, and when the Bronx Bombers grabbed him the Red Sox believed their yearning for a championship would never end. Instead, they have won two World Series since, their first titles since 1918. And attendance is at a stunning 101 percent of capacity.

In fact, attendance plays a big part in examining which franchise may want A-Rod. Of the remaining five teams, four — the Mariners, White Sox, Mets and Dodgers — averaged less than 90 percent of capacity in home attendance in 2007, meaning there’s significant room for ticket sale increases to cover money blown on a huge salary. The Angels are doing better drawing fans to their Anaheim ballpark and thus are unlikely to seriously bid on his services.

These four remaining franchises need to consider: Has A-Rod boosted attendance since he signed his mammoth contract seven years ago? His record is mixed.

In Texas, attendance declined steadily for the last-place club, going from an average 34,950 a game in 2001 to 25,856 in 2003. Yet attendance increased during each of his four seasons with the Yankees, from 47,788 in 2004 to 52,739 per game this past season. That's another $250,000 minimum per contest in Yankee coffers in 2007 compared with 2004 — or about $20 million a year in extra revenue, which Rodriguez can take some credit for.

Another issue is that any one of these four teams may need to start paying the luxury tax — which kicks in at $155 million in team salary in 2008 — if they sign Rodriguez and others. And though the Yankees persuaded Texas owner Tom Hicks to cover a large chunk of A-Rod's salary even when he played for New York, any franchise hiring him will need to pay the full cost this time.

From A-Rod's perspective, the Mets are likely out. His stay in New York has been rocky — his wife even wore a T-shirt to a Yankee game this year with an obscenity on it, prompting the tabloid headline "F-Rod" — and by leaving New York, he’ll avoid a stifling combined state and city tax of more than 10 percent (remember, one of Hicks’ big selling points in luring him to the Rangers was the fact that no state income tax exists in Texas).

That leaves the Mariners, White Sox and Dodgers, which leaves little room for agent Scott Boras to play teams against each other. Do the Mariners really want to offer about a 60-fold increase from the $442,000 they paid A-Rod 11 years ago? Doubtful.

So two teams can battle it out. The White Sox need a third baseman after Joe Crede’s poor 2007 campaign. The Dodgers need a star to lift them into the playoffs, and A-Rod would be an upgrade on Nomar Garciaparra, also a former shortstop. Now that former Yankees manager Joe Torre has been signed to manage the team, A-Rod would enjoy an immediate level of comfort. No tabloids engage readers in Los Angeles County, but “L-A-ROD!” could be a headline soon.

If A-Rod ends up without a deal by Christmas, the sleek slugger could always approach the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Sure, they would have to double the entire team’s annual salary ($24 million) to pay him. He’d never make a World Series — but at least he’d avoid state income tax.

Msnbc.com contributor David Sweet can be reached at dafsweet@aol.com.

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