Mark Teixeira can still play, even if he can’t play like he used to

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Mark Teixeira is off to a poor start this season.

His slash line reads .250/.348/.325, more in line with a backup middle infielder than a first baseman and middle-of-the-order hitter signed to a contract that will pay him $22.5 million per year through 2016. This has resulted in suggestions that something dire is happening to Teixeira, leading in turn to the suggestion that he might be able to solve the problem by bunting to neutralize the shift against him.

But talk of his demise is undoubtedly premature, even if there is a real decline that Yankee fans ought to keep in mind as they consider the team's future.

Teixeira can still play. He just isn't the top-flight first baseman he was when New York signed him prior to the 2009 season.

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His .673 OPS through 46 plate appearances is low, no question. But leaving aside that 46 plate appearances is entirely too few to judge any player, it's worth noting that Teixeira has nearly always struggled in April. Even including his hot start in April 2011, his career OPS for the month is just .769. It was .559 in 2010, .738 in 2009. He's had numerous slow starts to some of his best major league seasons.

At the same time, it is important to realize that the great Teixeira the Yankees originally signed probably is gone for good. In the four years prior to joining the Yankees, Teixeira posted an OPS+ off 142, which is terrific, even at the offensively stacked position of first base. Those were, not coincidentally, his age 25-28 seasons.

He kept his production right in line with that in year one with the Yankees, posting an OPS+ of 141 in 2009, his age-29 season. But since the start of the 2010 season, Teixeira has come to the plate 1,442 times. His OPS+ is 120. He's become a far more ordinary player, mostly due to a decline in his ability to hit lefties.

Now in his fourth season of an eight-year deal, the Yankees couldn't have expected Teixeira to maintain his prime production deep into the contract. If he simply declines gradually, he'll still be a good starting first baseman for the Yankees over the course of most of that deal. The essence of those contracts is to hope a player gives a team surplus value on the front end to mitigate against decline on the back end. 

Teixeira won't quite have done that, if what we're seeing now is the beginning of that decline.

But no one's going to call his contract a mistake. After all, this is the Yankees we're talking about. On their payroll, $22.5 million is pretty commonplace. And the Yankee lineup is deep enough to succeed with a first baseman who is merely good.

Teixeira's years challenging for M.V.P. awards are likely over. That doesn't mean his career is.