Mark Teixeira can return to the Yankees as early as Sunday, but return as what?

He has fallen – physically and statistically – but to where? The offensive identity of Teixeira lingers as a key question to this season. With recent imports such as Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Alfonso Soriano present, it might not be necessary for Teixeira to be a huge weightlifter in the lineup.

But he can’t be a zero for a variety of reasons, notably that the Yanks do not have an obvious replacement for him, unless you believe in this concept: Kelly Johnson, starting first baseman. If Teixeira cannot physically or statistically hold his own, then the Yanks are going to have to use prospects or finances they currently seem unwilling to expend to solve the situation.

With Alex Rodriguez gone as the easiest target in sports, Teixeira has become his heir, at least in the Yankees’ corner of the globe. In fact, as the disappointment/loathing of Teixeira has climbed, the appreciation of his skills – particularly while with the Yankees – has been in free fall.

But understand this: Through his age-31 season in 2011, having completed three Yankee years, Teixeira had 314 homers. That is exactly what Mike Schmidt had through age 31, one more homer than Reggie Jackson and Willie McCovey had, nine more than Eddie Murray had. Those are four members of both the 500-homer club and Hall of Fame.

Factoring in that he played mostly in favorable home parks with the Rangers and Yankees and in a power-inflated era, Teixeira’s homer feats are not quite the equivalent of, say, Schmidt’s or McCovey’s. But he did have a .904 OPS and four Gold Gloves at that moment, and it was possible to believe he was going to force a tough Cooperstown decision.