Bad news Bombers: Injuries put Yankees in big hole to start season

Derek Jeter takes batting practice before a spring Derek Jeter takes batting practice before a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays. (Feb. 24, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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TAMPA, Fla.

Three weeks ago, a Yankees official, surveying what had become the Camp Carnage of the Grapefruit League, sigh- ed.

"And I was concerned before the start of camp,'' he said.

This was March 7, shortly after news broke that Mariano Rivera planned to retire at season's end, a rare piece of Yankees-related news during this spring training that had nothing to do with injury.

A day earlier, Mark Teixeira had been diagnosed with a wrist injury that would keep him out eight to 10 weeks. Ten days before that, Curtis Granderson was declared out for a similar time period. Six days before that, Phil Hughes was sidelined indefinitely with two bulging discs.

Derek Jeter's setback with his left ankle was yet to come, and goodness knows what else.

"It really could be a conga line to the DL with them,'' one opposing team talent evaluator said of the Yankees, mentioning the club's age, as just about everyone inevitably does.

Indeed, an aura of negativity -- caused mostly by a perceived lack of offseason activity, which isn't entirely fair -- swirled around the Yankees well before camp and has only intensified.

"The amount of success we've had for a long time, we're judged at a higher standard,'' general manager Brian Cashman said uncomplainingly earlier in spring training. "So no, it [the reaction] doesn't surprise me.''

The Yankees are entering the regular season in an odd place, one they haven't been in for a long time.

Few consider them a favorite in the AL East, though no one's picking them for last, either. "Their pitching is too good for that,'' one American League scout said.

In his kickoff news conference, manager Joe Girardi, while acknowledging the potential troubled waters ahead because of an aging roster, nonetheless saw a path to the only place that matters to fans.

"This team could win 95 games and get to the World Series,'' said Girardi, who is in the final year of his contract.

If they do, it likely will be because Jeter resembles his 2012 self, Kevin Youkilis resembles his pre-2011 self, Robinson Cano resembles the complete, all-around player he's been since 2009, and Teixeira and Granderson make full recoveries by May and put up the power numbers the Yankees desperately need.

And because of a pitching staff that even the most negative of outside talent evaluators see as a strength.

Led by CC Sabathia and followed by Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Hughes (eventually) and Ivan Nova, the staff matches up with any in the American League other than perhaps Tampa Bay's.

Cashman's most significant offseason moves were pitching-related -- bringing back Kuroda for $15 million, Pettitte for $12 million and Rivera for $10 million.

Rivera, coming off a torn right ACL, has been impressive and, 43 years old and all, seems poised to put up the kind of dominant season the Yankees grew accustomed to long ago.

Jeter, who will turn 39 in June, had been batting away questions about age for at least the previous three years and did so again in spring training.

"If you want to make it a positive, they say how experienced we are; someone wants to make it sound another way, it's we're old,'' Jeter said. "I like to think we're experienced . . . Regardless of how old anyone is, our job is to come here to be ready to play and help us compete. And we've been able to do that pretty successfully throughout the years, and our plans don't change.''

And so the prevailing thought from the GM on down is this: dismiss us at your own peril.

"There might be less pressure on our players because the focus and expectations are higher elsewhere and it will be a challenge for those teams to deal with it,'' Cashman said. "And I'm sure it will motivate some of our players who might say, 'Don't forget about us. We're still dangerous as hell.' ''

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