Alex Rodriguez nearing return for the New York Yankees

Alex Rodriguez, who leads the league in Headlines Earned despite his season-long absence from the field, is set to return to the Yankees on Monday. Hopefully for the Bombers, the stories he inspires in the second-half will pertain to baseball.

A-Rod returns to the Yankees lineup on Monday.

There, already, is an indication of A-Rod’s waning ability. A piece about an 0-37 slide at the plate would come as a breath of fresh air to the toxic reports of playoff flirtation, managerial strife and – gulp – steroid use. Fair to say, such coverage would come as a relief.

If this A-Rod was placed on a Yankee club circa 2009, the team brass could treat him the way a company’s retiring owner might treat his succeeding son. You aren’t very good at this job, but do your part and stay out of trouble. The heavy-hitting Yankee teams of years past had the depth to compensate for a declining slugger.

But here’s the thing: the hollow-hitting Yankee team of this year doesn’t.

The batting order has more holes in it than a spaghetti strainer. As the offense is constructed right now, there is one bat that carries game-changing pop. Outside of Robinson Cano, the Yankee hitters don’t scare a hermit crab. They have found ways to manufacture (enough) runs, but there is still little reason to believe that, on any given night, Cano and Co. won’t get shut out.

So like it or not, the Yankees need A-Rod. And they need the A-Rod of Old, not the A-Rod of Old Age. That’s a scary thought when you consider the 37-year-old third baseman is two years removed from knee surgery and just six months removed from hip surgery. But those dire overtones can be soothed by sizing up the shoes he needs to fill. Suffice to say, he’s not coming in for Wade Boggs.

In A-Rod’s absence, a six-player platoon has filled his spot at third base. Most recently duties have fallen to Luis Cruz, but for much of the summer David Adams got the call. Before him, it was Jayson Nix’s job and before him, Kevin Youkilis’. Moonlighters have also included Chris Nelson and Alberto Gonzalez. If there has been a revolving door at shortstop, then at third base there has been a Fenway Park turnstile.

Together, the aforementioned six players have hit .225 on the season, with four homeruns and 25 RBI. Their on-base-percentage is lower than Cano’s batting average. Their slugging percentage, ditto. Their OPS – the aggregate of the former two stats – is so low the six grown men have tried hiding it in a closet. In 342 at-bats, the contingent at third has produced just 18 extra-base hits, and rapped into more double plays than any other positional unit on the team.

The outfit at shortstop comes close, but the third basemen take the cake as the least productive hitters on this team.

Needless to say, A-Rod doesn’t need to be Superman to give the Yankees a lift. The A-Rod of Old the Yankees need is not the one that played for the Rangers, and not even the one that played for Joe Torre. It’s the one that played the past three years for Joe Girardi.

That A-Rod – his numbers averaged over a 162-game season – was a .273 hitter good for 28 homeruns and 107 RBI. The latter two statistics are skewed a bit by his 30-homerun, 125-RBI campaign in 2010, but with A-Rod’s 2013 odometer set to zero, one would think he has enough energy to turn back the clock for two months.

67 games remain in this season, a little over 40 percent of the full 162-game slate. If we prorate A-Rod’s 2010-2012 averages over 64 games (to account for a few days off), his numbers look like this: .273, 11 homeruns, 42 RBI. It might not seem like a ton of damage to come, but compared to the production of his replacements, it’s the early signs of a stage-5 hurricane.

Even if we remove 2010 from the equation, 2011-2012 A-Rod breaks down like this: .274/25/88. Prorated over 64 games, that’s 10 home runs and 35 RBI, or about quadruple the homeruns and double the RBI the current platoon could be expected to provide.

Given that A-Rod is likely to hit behind Robinson Cano, that jump in homeruns is especially important. If he looms as a power threat with Cano at the plate, opposing pitchers will be more inclined to attack the Yankees’ best hitter, something he has rarely experienced this year. With little protection behind him, Cano has been forced to take 48 walks this season, and to see Cano walking freely to first is to see Jamie Moyer come over the plate. He’d rather swing.

A-Rod, simply by standing on deck, can put the bat back in his hands. But he must stay healthy, a qualifier not to be taken lightly for this A-Rod and this Yankees team.

The club’s fortunes now rest heavily on a surgically-repaired hip, a surgically-repaired knee and a thinning bat. A scary thought, indeed.

But a scarier thought is what the Yankees would do without him.