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Yankees sell underdog role; don't buy it

New York Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild speaks

New York Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild speaks with pitcher Phil Hughes. (Feb. 18, 2011) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

I've gained about 10 pounds in the last two years. I think it makes me more intimidating.

My hair has been falling out for a good 10 years or so. It gives me a professorial aura.

Therefore, I could relate perfectly well to the Yankees, as they prepared to open their 2011 season Thursday against Detroit at Yankee Stadium, taking their deserved underdog status and running with it.

"We're not the favorite. So that kind of feels good to have everybody not picking us," Opening Day starter CC Sabathia said yesterday before the Yankees' workout at the Stadium. "Let's go out and kind of sneak up on some people."

"Maybe guys don't feel the weight of the expectations as much, I don't know," Joe Girardi said. "Sometimes, when you're the underdog, you kind of go under the radar a little bit."

I don't blame the Yankees for trying to sell it. But don't you buy it.

The story of this Yankees season is that they'll try to overcome a terrible winter. They might just pull it off. Yet to think that they could do so because of what transpired over the past five months -- rather than despite it -- is mere silliness. Or, as the kids would write, "LOL."

You know the sob story: The Yankees couldn't sign Cliff Lee, Andy Pettitte retired and the absence of viable Plan Bs led to Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia filling out the starting rotation.

"Freddy's definitely proven he knows how to pitch," Sabathia said. "We saw what Nova could do last year. He's got all the ability in the world. Give him a full season . . . and not have a lot of pressure on him, and I think he'll be ready."

Maybe so. Nevertheless, Nova lacks a track record, and no one views him as a potential front-line starter. Garcia is respected immensely throughout the industry, but his stuff doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence, not in the ultra-competitive American League East.

Even more important, A.J. Burnett (horrendous 2010) and Phil Hughes (bad second half and increased workload in '10) carry more question marks than a $200-million payroll team ideally would want from its second and third starters.

The key for this team will be to tread water -- anchored by its impressive lineup and bullpen -- until July, when bad clubs start conceding and put veterans on the trade market. And then the Yankees need one of those disappointing franchises to have a front-line starter available.

"I don't remember a year that people talked about the Yankees being underdogs, flying under the radar," Girardi said. Perhaps he chooses not to remember 2008, his first year running the Yankees, when the team opened the season with an unproven Hughes and Ian Kennedy in their rotation. The difference is, ownership was fully prepared that year to miss the playoffs and to not overpay in a trade for a front-line starter like Cleveland's Sabathia.

This year? The Yankees don't want to miss the playoffs again. They're here only because they failed to execute with Lee, rather than as a result of some greater vision. They'll bid farewell to top prospects if necessary.

And none of this, of course, will occur "under the radar." There will be no "sneaking up." That would be like asking a luxury liner to conduct a sneak attack on Normandy.

"I don't know if we're going to sneak up on anyone," Girardi acknowledged. "I think people are always pretty excited when we come into town."

Yankees fans should be excited for 2011. Their team has a real chance.

In no way, however, does the Red Sox's superior roster bode well for the Bronx boys. It just means the Yankees might have to settle for the wild card or -- in the worst-case scenario -- an empty October like '08.

New York Sports