Bombers break camp with new lineup, hope

Despite the defection of Robinson Cano and the retirement of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter's squad has more talent than it did at this time last spring. Will it be enough? David Manning/USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- Compared to a year ago, the Yankees had as good a spring training camp as a team could hope for.

Not one of their starters got seriously hurt. Masahiro Tanaka, their highest-priced acquisition of the winter, looked as if he just might be worth the money. Michael Pineda, a pitcher they had high hopes for -- and paid a high price for -- two years ago showed signs he might be about to pay off.

And they may have found a wild card in Yangervis Solarte, a young infielder who opened a lot of eyes this spring with his bat and his glove.

There was enough good news coming out of the final days of Yankees camp that it was easy to overlook some lingering worries.

Like, for instance, how they are going to replace Robinson Cano, and Mariano Rivera, and yes, Alex Rodriguez.

And how they are going to keep Derek Jeter on the field all season, and Carlos Beltran, and yes, Jacoby Ellsbury.

And what they are going to do if CC Sabathia can’t cook without gas, or Hiroki Kuroda once again can’t go the distance, or Ivan Nova can’t put together one whole solid season.

But this is not the time to focus on what the Yankees can’t do, or what might go wrong.

The end of spring training and the beginning of a new season is a time to assume that all will go right, even if you wouldn’t be shocked if a lot of things went wrong.

That is simply the nature of a baseball season. Players overperform and underperform. Guys stay healthy or get hurt. Production you were counting on doesn’t come through. And production you had no idea was possible suddenly becomes an everyday occurrence.

Like the man says, you just can’t predict it, not over the course of six months, 162 games, and who knows how many different players passing through the clubhouse.

But if things go well for the Yankees, meaning Jeter and Ellsbury and Beltran remain healthy, Sabathia pitches like an ace again, David Robertson makes us all a little less nostalgic for Mo and even Brian Roberts helps ease the sting of losing Cano, then this could be a very good Yankees team indeed.

Just look at the difference between last year’s Opening Day lineup and this year’s:


Brett Gardner CF

Eduardo Nunez SS

Robinson Cano 2B

Kevin Youkilis 1B

Vernon Wells LF

Ben Francisco DH

Ichiro Suzuki RF

Jayson Nix 3B

Francisco Cervelli C

CC Sabathia P

2014 (projected):

Jacoby Ellsbury CF

Derek Jeter SS

Carlos Beltran RF

Brian McCann C

Mark Teixeira 1B

Alfonso Soriano DH

Brett Gardner LF

Brian Roberts 2B

Kelly Johnson 3B

CC Sabathia P

The differences are obvious, and striking. No wonder even as laconic an individual as Jeter said, “It’s a long season and it takes a little while before you really get a great feel for what the team is capable of doing, but I’m pretty optimistic about this group.”

So, too, is Joe Girardi, who must have gagged when he wrote in Youkilis as his cleanup hitter and Francisco as his DH last April Fool's Day.

“Last year when we left, we were missing the middle of our order, the end of our order, the top of our order," Girardi said. “This year we leave with pretty much everyone in our order that we expected to be there. I think it was a very productive spring. I thought it was a very competitive spring. I really liked what I saw from our team. I feel good about it.”

And he has plenty of reason. GM Brian Cashman’s offseason spending spree added, potentially, a 100-run and 50-stolen-base guy at the top of his lineup, the most offensively potent catcher the Yankees have had since the heyday of Jorge Posada, and a No. 3 starter (Tanaka) who might be an ace on other teams.

Soriano, a trade deadline pickup last year, is a vast upgrade at DH over just about anyone the Yankees used last year -- does anyone remember Travis Hafner's Yankees uniform number? -- and while Johnson and Roberts are certainly not A-Rod and Cano, the belief is the other lineup upgrades will make up the difference.

And of course, there is Jeter, apparently healthy once again and motivated no doubt by the tantalizing prospect of winning once more in his final big league season.

Jeter sets the tone for this team, and as long as he can stay on the field, the Yankees will feel like the Yankees again, something they rarely felt like last year.

Jeter did not have a good spring at the plate -- he batted .137 with no home runs and two RBIs -- but said just the fact that he was able to play back-to-back-to-back days at shortstop without pain was proof enough for him that he is recovered from the ankle and leg injuries that robbed him of nearly all of 2013.

“I feel good," he said. “That was the most important thing. Spring training is a progression, both physically and being game-ready. I feel I’m where I want to be right now.”

So is Sabathia, who, in the process of adjusting to his new, lower-octane repertoire, went 3-1 with a 1.29 ERA this spring, and Tanaka, who in his first encounter with major league hitters came away the clear winner, striking out 26 in 21 innings and walking just three batters all spring.

But perhaps the two most gratifying success stories of Yankees camp were Pineda, acquired in a trade for top prospect Jesus Montero two years ago, and then nearly lost to a torn labrum, and Dellin Betances, a kid who grew up a subway ride from Yankee Stadium, grew into a 6-8 fireballer but struggled with his control and lost his chance to be a starter.

This spring, however, a healthy Pineda pitched exceptionally well and won the fifth starter’s job, and Betances, his 97 mph fastball back within his control, not only won a spot in the bullpen but had people in the organization talking about him as a possible closer one day.

And then there was Solarte, who had kicked around for seven minor league seasons in two organizations before finally making it impossible for a team to part with him after an impressive spring. He and Dean Anna provide flexibility and youth on the Yankees' bench, two qualities decidedly missing last year.

“We have a lot of talent, but you have to perform on the field," said Jeter, and he is right. “Everyone tries to have predictions of where they feel each team is going to finish every year, but you have to perform on the field."

Still, he added, "I like the guys that we have."

He probably wouldn’t have said that at this time last year, and neither would you.

This year you can. And starting Tuesday, the Yankees have 162 games to prove they deserve it.