Yankees' saving grace is its solid pitching staff

From left, Yankees pitchers Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia

From left, Yankees pitchers Mariano Rivera, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte are seen after running wind sprints on Field 3 at George M. Steinbrenner Field. (Feb. 13, 2013). (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

TAMPA, Fla.

From Day 1 of spring training, the narrative for the 2013 Yankees has gone something like this:

Theirs is an aging, injury-prone roster, one that very well could lead to a dip, if not a cliff-dive, in the standings.

Also included in the story line is praise for a pitching staff that on paper is among the best in the American League, one that, if the lineup stays reasonably healthy, could lead the Yankees to another division title, or at least a postseason berth.

But if spring training is any indication, "reasonably healthy'' might be a case of reach exceeding grasp. With the 162-game regular-season marathon still to come, the Yankees didn't come close to making it through March unscathed by injuries.

And an offense that has lost more than 100 home runs -- led by Nick Swisher's 24 and Russell Martin's 21 -- has been underwhelming.

And so, as a rival executive put it midway through spring training: "They're going to have to pitch their ---- off this year.''

That, of course, can be said for pretty much every team that has postseason aspirations. But hoping and having are two different things, and the Yankees have the goods in that department, starting with CC Sabathia and continuing with Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes (assuming his balky back heals in the given time frame) and Ivan Nova.

"Pitching,'' one American League talent evaluator said, asked for a positive about the Yankees after ticking off several negatives. "Everyone's down on them, and not without reason because of the age and everything, but the rotation is legit.''

Martin, the Yankees' starting catcher in 2011-12 before taking a two-year deal with the Pirates during the offseason, said the Yankees will have an "uphill'' battle trying to replace all the offense lost.

But the rotation?

"They're going to be fine,'' he said. "Pitching I don't think is going to be an issue.''

It starts, of course, with lefthanded ace Sabathia, who is coming off a regular season in which he had two stays on the disabled list. The first time (June 25-July 16) was because of a groin strain; the second (Aug. 9-23) was the result of elbow inflammation that resulted in offseason surgery to remove bone spurs.

The two DL stints limited Sabathia to 200 innings, breaking a streak of five straight seasons of at least 230 innings, disappointing for a pitcher who prides himself on taking the ball every fifth day.

But the 32-year-old Sabathia has said the lessened 2012 load has his left arm feeling as fresh as ever.

And with an offense that general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi acknowledge isn't likely to score with the frequency of past years, there's more pressure on the rotation, though Sabathia doesn't necessarily buy that.

"I feel like we needed to keep the runs down and pitch well anyway, so [there] is no added pressure,'' Sabathia said earlier in spring training. "I think we as a staff put a lot of pressure on ourselves to pitch well because we know the team's only going to go as far as the pitching takes it . . . We put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

"With the injuries, it's just one of those things where we're going to have to go out and pitch a little better.''

Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner has bristled at the suggestion that the Yankees were inactive during the offseason, pointing out that the club signed three of the top free agents on the market (though two of them were never threats to go anywhere), which completed two-fifths of the rotation. They brought back Kuroda for $15 million, Pettitte for $12 million and Mariano Rivera for $10 million. The latter two were playing in the Bronx or nowhere. Kuroda, the Yankees' most consistent starter last season (16-11, 3.32 ERA), had other suitors, including the Dodgers and Red Sox.

Pettitte, his season shortened when he suffered a broken ankle on a comebacker against Cleveland June 27, went 5-4 in 12 starts with a 2.87 ERA. One AL scout said the 40-year-old has looked "like the same old Pettitte'' in spring training.

Hughes, who went 16-13 with a 4.19 ERA last season, is poised to score big on the free- agent market with a solid season. Nova, a disappointing 12-8, 5.02 last season, is only two years removed from 2011, when he went 16-4, 3.70.

"His stuff is too good not to have a rebound year,'' a National League scout said.

On the surface, the ages of Kuroda, 39, and Pettitte are a concern. But as Cashman has pointed out, there's something to be said for pitchers who already have established year in and year out that they can handle a heavy workload. And Pettitte's injury last season certainly had nothing to do with age.

Girardi, for one, doesn't buy into the pessimism that has surrounded his team since early in the offseason, when it became apparent that for the second straight year, the Yankees weren't going to be major players in the free-agent market. And the arms at his disposal, and the experience in the Bronx that comes with them, is the reason why.

"There were teams that made big splashes in the free- agent market last year and were expected to win the World Series or get to the playoffs and didn't even get there,'' Girardi said, a clear reference to the 2012 Marlins. "There's no guarantees.

"I love the people we brought back because I know they're tested and I know they know how to play in New York. I've seen them have success in New York, and to me that's real important.''

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