David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Yesterday's injury to Brendan Ryan, who had to be carried down the dugout steps after a sixth-inning calf strain, is not going to be the difference between the Yankees possibly winning 88 games this season or skidding to 74.
But it was an unsettling reminder -- less than a week before Opening Day -- of the very thin line the Yankees again are walking with an older, top-heavy roster. Ryan, at 33, shouldn't be among the higher-risk group. He's just been brittle since arriving in the Bronx. And the prospect of losing him for an extended period has the Yankees scrambling to find a backup middle infielder.
Too bad Alex Rodriguez left so soon after the Yankees' 3-0 loss to the Rays at Steinbrenner Field. As one of the healthier players this spring, we would have liked to ask him about filling in at shortstop -- purely for amusement, obviously.
It is funny, however, that A-Rod has managed to stay healthy and put up respectable numbers for the past six weeks while more significant pieces of the roster are a little banged up. Mark Teixeira (bruised knee) and Jacoby Ellsbury (oblique) finally returned to the lineup yesterday but Didi Gregorius (wrist) was delayed for one more game.
We don't blame Joe Girardi for being super-cautious. Even though Gregorius said the swelling was gone and he was ready to play, Girardi left him on the shelf -- and that decision was made hours before the manager helped transport Ryan off the field. Next on the depth chart would be moving Stephen Drew over to short, then trying to scrape up someone with major-league experience, like Nick Noonan from their own roster or a last-minute castaway from another team.
You see how quickly the best-laid plans come apart? Since 2012, the Yankees have ranked fifth among all MLB teams in average days lost to the disabled list, according to data compiled by The Hardball Times. That's helped keep them out of the playoffs the past two years -- the Dodgers were the only team in that group to reach the postseason -- and the Yankees look just as vulnerable again.
"Your depth is tested," Girardi said. "You understand that going in, these things can happen, and you've got to deal with it. I think that's why they try to go out and acquire as many good players as you can."
The rotation contains the most worrisome candidates, with Masahiro Tanaka getting by with a small UCL tear, CC Sabathia's arthritic knee and Michael Pineda's history of shoulder problems. If all three stay healthy, and pitch to the rosier view of their potential, the Yankees' odds of ending their October drought rise considerably. And that could happen.
It just doesn't feel that way. Not after Sabathia's struggles this spring, and Tanaka's little resemblance to the dominant pitcher he was a year ago at this time. The Yankees speak optimistically about both starters, but they always seem more conditioned to brace for the worst after what they've endured the past few seasons.
The theme of this spring training has been safety first, with the Yankees bringing their rotation along at a snail's pace rather than risk breaking anyone before getting to the Bronx on April 6. As for the lineup, Teixeira taking a pitch off the knee in a minor-league game was a freak accident and Gregorius just landed badly on his wrist. With Ellsbury, a prolonged injury timeout seems to be a rite of spring for him.
Those are just the most glaring afflictions we know about. Carlos Beltran, penciled in to be the starting rightfielder, is coming off elbow surgery and turns 39 in three weeks. It's hardly surprising that he's lost another step defensively, and if his legs become an issue, that could cause some overcrowding in the DH spot with Rodriguez.
But Girardi would rather deal with those problems in the Bronx rather than Tampa, and the Yankees just have to survive three more days, including Saturday's exhibition against the Nationals in D.C. The manager can see the finish line, and that only seems to make him more anxious.
"The good thing is I feel like we got Didi back," Girardi said. "But things can happen quick. I think a lot of clubs hold their breath this time of year, that you leave camp the way you are. Sometimes it doesn't happen."
Girardi, fingers crossed, has yet to exhale.