So Alex Rodriguez is an admitted cheater.
Brace for nonstop "A-Fraud" chants, because baseball's most scrutinized superstar is about to enter a season in which he couldn't be any more in the public's crosshairs. Think 2004 (his first season in pinstripes) or 2007 (entering his opt-out season) was pressure-packed? Those were nothing compared to what's in store for him in 2009.
That A-Rod admitted Monday to using performance-enhancing drugs while with the Texas Rangers from 2001 to 2003 comes as surprising news. But the source of the surprise -- at least to me -- stems from the fact that his numbers don't at all paint the portrait of a slugger whose numbers were juiced up during an isolated three-year span of his career.
Take a look at A-Rod's raw statistics before, during and after those seasons:
1996 to 2000: .310 BA, .365 OBP, .558 SLG, .923 OPS, 17.0 AB/HR
2001 to '03: .311 BA, .403 OBP, .618 SLG, 1.021 OPS, 12.1 AB/HR
2004 to '08: .302 BA, .401 OBP, .578 SLG, .980 OPS, 13.5 AB/HR
Yes, the point can be made that A-Rod, statistically speaking (and therefore fantasywise), was at his best during that three-year stint in Texas. But two things to keep in mind about those seasons:
One, A-Rod was at his physical peak during that three-year span with the Rangers because he was 25, 26 and 27 years old. Countless statistical studies -- including mine from the 2008 preseason -- demonstrate a player's probable levels of offensive growth at those ages. Fact is, Rodriguez really didn't experience any percentage boost to his batting rates out of line with those of your typical 25-to-27-year-old major league ballplayer.
Two, in those seasons A-Rod played his home games at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, one of baseball's most hitter-friendly environments. From 2001 to '03, these were Rodriguez's home/road splits:
Home: .333 BA, .416 OBP, .666 SLG, 1.083 OPS, 10.9 AB/HR
Road: .278 BA, .375 OBP, .564 SLG, .938 OPS, 13.3 AB/HR
To put that another way, baseball-reference.com has a handy tool that neutralizes, or removes team- and ballpark-specific factors from, a player's statistics. Doing so helps with easy comparisons between players (or seasons) in favorable or unfavorable hitter environments. Again, check out A-Rod's breakdowns by era, but this time neutralized:
1996 to 2000: .306 BA, .372 OBP, .559 SLG, .931 OPS, 16.4 AB/HR
2001 to '03: .298 BA, .388 OBP, .601 SLG, .989 OPS, 12.2 AB/HR
2004 to '08: .306 BA, .404 OBP, .578 SLG, .983 OPS, 13.7 AB/HR
Accounting for those numbers, doesn't it seem as though the A-Rod who has worn pinstripes the past five seasons isn't all that much less productive than the juiced-up Texas model? A couple of other points to that effect: He's a two-time MVP as a Yankee (2005 and 2007), has managed his three highest single-season on-base plus slugging percentages in non-Texas seasons (2007, 1.067; 1996, 1.045; and 2005, 1.031) and had what many would consider his most productive season as a fantasy player in that 2005 MVP campaign.
If A-Rod is telling the truth when saying he has been PED-free in every season but those from 2001 to '03, his statistical trends certainly don't show anything especially bothersome. He remains nearly as productive today as he has ever been and, at 33, is close enough to his prime to remain a clear first-round fantasy draft selection, even a candidate for the No. 1 pick. If there is any reason for concern, it's that minor injuries that limited him to playing 138 games in 2008 might resurface, or that the intense fan and media scrutiny could get to him. But A-Rod has handled the latter before, and, well, there's little reason to doubt him this time.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball, football and hockey analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.