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Tuesday, March 19, 2013
Yankees can't catch a spring break

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Even at full strength, the 2013 season figured to be one in which just about everything would have to go right for the New York Yankees.

So far, just about everything has gone wrong.

The latest, of course, is the "cranky ankle" that caused Derek Jeter to be scratched from the lineup about an hour before Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Jeter's absence may turn out to be what Yankees manager Joe Girardi characterized it as, merely a precautionary measure and no more than a one- to two-day setback in his recovery from a broken and surgically repaired ankle.

Or, it could be another body blow to an aging roster that has already been softened up by a seemingly endless procession of spring training injuries.

After the loss of free agents Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez, the serious injuries suffered by Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, and now the setback for Jeter, it is quite possible that when the Yankees open their season on April 1 against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, there will be only two position players on the field from last year.

Jeter
The Yankees can only hope Derek Jeter returns to his form from the 2012 season after ankle surgery.

Brett Gardner in center and Robinson Cano on second. And, oh yeah, CC Sabathia on the mound.

If nothing else, the Yankees will look very different this season. And the odds are they will play, and score, very differently, having lost more than 150 home runs with the loss of eight key players.

But the way things have been going this spring, it is getting harder and harder to believe that the 2013 Yankees will be able to duplicate the success of the 2012 Yankees, who still fell markedly short of what used to be the annual goal on their mission statement.

In order for these Yankees to even hope to win 95 regular-season games and the AL's East Division, the way last year's Yankees did, they needed for Sabathia and Gardner to bounce back from elbow surgeries, for Mariano Rivera to rebound from his knee surgery, for Granderson to come up with another 40 home run season, for Teixeira to improve on his injury-riddled 2012 season, and for Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis and whoever they settle on to play left field to make up for some of their lost power.

And they needed Derek Jeter, despite coming off the broken ankle and moving rapidly toward his 39th birthday, to come close to, if not duplicate, his outstanding 2012 season, in which he batted .316 and led the majors in hits.

Some of those "musts" may still happen -- Sabathia, Rivera and Gardner all look good so far this spring -- but most of them probably will not.

Granderson will miss the first five weeks of the season. Teixeira is scheduled to miss the same amount of time, and perhaps a whole lot more.

And now Jeter's ability to play a high-quality shortstop on an everyday basis has got to be considered in doubt, since it only took five games, followed by two full days off, for his ankle to act up to the point that he had to take a day off.

Jeter and Girardi can minimize it all they like, but for Derek Jeter to be hurting enough to tell the team trainer about it, knowing the information will be immediately relayed to the manager, is an indication his return to form will not be nearly as automatic as they would like us to believe.

And, thinking logically, there was no reason to think that would, except that for the past 17 years, just about everything has seemingly been automatic for the Yankees.

If it wasn't an automatic World Series, it was an automatic division title, or at worst, an automatic playoff berth.

But that may not be the case this season. If Jeter can't go, or is limited to playing part-time shortstop, it means this year's Yankees infield, from left to right, will be Youkilis-Eduardo Nunez-Cano-Juan Rivera on somedays.

That is a long way from Rodriguez-Jeter-Cano-Teixeira. Throw in the two-headed (but batless) monster of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart behind the plate in place of the occasionally productive Martin, and you're looking at a lineup that promises to be offensively challenged and a defense that could be dangerously leaky.

Girardi, the optimist, refused to bite when asked if he even allowed himself to consider the possibility that the Yankees could be in for a difficult season.

"No," he said. "I believe in the guys we're going to put on the field. I believe we're still talented even though we have some injuries we have to deal with, and you find a way to get it done."

Did he really think this new, somewhat motley collection of players could come up with the same number of wins?

"Well, we're going to have to find out," Girardi said. "But I believe we can."

It's possible that Teixeira will return earlier than expected, that Granderson's absence will mean the loss of only a half dozen or so home runs, and that Youkilis' bat will provide at least as much as the diminished A-Rod produced last season.

It's also possible that after a day or two of rest, Jeter will come back as good as he was last year, and Mo will be able to do what no 43-year-old closer has ever done, and CC will turn back the clock to 2009 and Andy Pettitte, soon to be 41, will pitch once again as if he was 21.

But for that to happen, a lot of things have to go right for the Yankees from this day forward, and so far, just about everything has gone wrong.

The team that for nearly two decades could count on automatic October may, this year, be faced with something unexpected and decidedly unpleasant.