Commentary

Patchwork Yanks must fill in blanks

Until big-name Bombers come back, remaining crew needs to keep team together

Updated: March 29, 2013, 8:18 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

On paper, the Opening Day lineup the Yankees will send out Monday against the Boston Red Sox is arguably their worst in 20 years.

And that is without even knowing who the first baseman, the designated hitter or the catcher will be.

Think back, if you dare, to five months ago, when the Yankees were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS, a series in which they scored all of two runs over the final 27 innings. Remember how bad that team looked in those four games.

[+] EnlargeMark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsOf the Yankees' 2012 starting infield, only one player -- Robinson Cano -- will be in the lineup on Opening Day 2013.

And now think about how much better -- on paper, anyway -- that team was than the team they are sending out now.

When the Yankees take the field on Monday, this is how many players from last year's Opening Day lineup will be out there: Three. Robinson Cano. Brett Gardner. And CC Sabathia.

Imagine a Yankees opener without Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson on the field. Imagine a Yankees squad with six (essentially) unfamiliar faces on the field. Seven if you include Travis Hafner, the new DH. Against right-handed starters, that is. Joe Girardi isn't even sure who his DH will be on Monday, when the Red Sox are expected to start Jon Lester, a lefty.

No matter how you try to spin it, the 2013 Yankees aren't nearly as good as the 2012 Yankees, who turned out not to be good enough.

And yet, this year's Yankees don't have to be better than last year's Yankees, or the 1998 Yankees or even the 1992 Yankees, whose best player was an aging Don Mattingly, to have a successful season.

They only have to be better than the rest of the AL East, or at least good enough to remain in contention for a wild card.

As Cano, the best player on the 2013 Yankees, has now said three times by my count this spring, "Hopefully we can stay in the race so whenever [the injured regulars] get back we can be on track and they can help us make it all the way to the playoffs."

So the object this season, at least for the first half, is to tread water long enough that hopefully, when Jeter and Teixeira and Granderson and A-Rod finally return, the Yankees will be able to swim safely into October.

"Someone will step up," Mariano Rivera said. "Someone will do what needs to be done to win games. You don't need to have just big names to do the job, to get the job done. You have to have the heart and will to do the job. That's what separates. I believe that everyone who is here is capable of doing that."

And then the great Mo invoked the name of Scott Brosius, a key member, of course, of the 1998 Yankees.

This year, the names who need to step up are Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay -- provided the Yankees don't upgrade at first base between now and Monday -- and both Franciscos, Ben and Cervelli.

They need help from Boesch, not Bosch, as in Brennan, not Anthony.

And they need to pitch and play defense even better than they did last year, because this season, the runs will not be nearly as easy to come by.

A big worry, but one rarely discussed, has got to be the bullpen, which won't have the luxury of working with a healthy cushion as it did much of last season. This year, the Boone Logans and the Cody Eppleys and the Joba Chamberlains are going to be asked to protect one-run leads -- a lot tougher than protecting three-run leads -- in order to hand the game safely over to David Robertson and finally, to Mo.

Can they do it?

Who knows? But one thing you can be assured of is that this will be one of the most interesting Yankees seasons in decades, if only because the challenges to both the team and its rabid but endlessly demanding fan base will reveal a lot about the character of both.

Already, we know that season ticket sales are down, hence the Yankees business department's war against StubHub and their "goodwill gesture" of giving away two free tickets for every Legends seat -- the highest-priced ticket in the ballpark -- purchased this season.

And former season ticket holders who gave up their seats for various reasons, most of which come back to the same reason -- the exorbitant prices -- have told me the Yankees are deluging them with ever-more-attractive ticket offers in an effort to lure them back.

So already, it seems as if a lot of fans are heading for the lifeboats.

To their credit, however, most of the players, including those who have seen the best of times with the Yankees and very few rough patches, believe this team can still get it done, if only because the history of this franchise tells you it will somehow find a way.

Jeter told me last week he had "a good feeling" about this team and compared its lack of power to the 1996 Yankees, who had no player hit more home runs than Bernie Williams' 29.

And of course Girardi, eternal optimist that he is, continues to maintain publicly that he believes the players in his clubhouse will be good enough to get the job done.

But will they? If so, they will need everything to go right, and so far, just about everything has gone wrong. Maybe that means that all the bad stuff is behind them now, that they suffered all their injuries and hardships in spring training and the regular season will proceed relatively smoothly. Remember the old baseball saying about not believing anything you see in March or September.

But for the Yankees to really make a run at this race, they're going to need Youkilis to roughly approximate the production even the diminished A-Rod had been giving the Yankees at third the past couple of years.

They need Eduardo Nunez, an exciting offensive player, to be a little less exciting on defense. Say what you will about Jeter's range, if he can get to a ball he's going to make the play. No one can say that with any certainty about Nunez.

They need Overbay, or whoever turns out to be the everyday first baseman in Tex's absence, to save as many throwing errors, and runs, as Tex does in what is a grossly overlooked and underappreciated part of his game.

They need Hafner to stay healthy enough to enjoy the benefits of those cozy right field seats, and they need Vernon Wells to rediscover the stroke that produced a couple of 30-plus home run seasons in Toronto.

They need Cano to be Cano and Ichiro to be the Ichiro he was as a 2012 Yankee, not a 2012 Seattle Mariner, and they need Gardner not only to stay on the field, but on the basepaths.

Most of all, they need superior pitching, not just from Sabathia but from Hiroki Kuroda, who is 38 years old and coming off a career-high 219.2 innings, and from Andy Pettitte, who will be 41 and has not been physically capable of a full 32-start season since 2009.

And it would help greatly if the Blue Jays do not live up to their preseason hype, if the Rays and Orioles and their roster of mostly young players do not continue to improve, and if the Red Sox turn out to be as bad as they seem to be on paper.

Is it asking a lot? You bet.

But over the past 17 years, this team and this organization have shown they are capable of a lot, too.

Just before spring training started, I wrote a column that said the Yankees had a rare opportunity this season, the chance to actually pleasantly surprise their fans by being better than expected.

That was before Granderson and Teixeira went down, and before it became obvious that Jeter's recovery was going to take longer than anyone predicted.

Now, just upgrade "pleasantly surprise" to "shock."

The 2013 Yankees, who are about to field their worst Opening Day lineup in 20 years, might just shock the world by still being in the race after Labor Day.

Considering their history, I'm betting on it.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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