Setbacks haven't dented Yanks' expectations
Defending AL East champs still aiming high after injury bug strikes big-name stars
TAMPA, Fla. -- When the Yankees send their official lineup card to home plate on Monday, it is projected to contain just three names from the group that dashed from the dugout on Opening Day 2012: Robinson Cano, Brett Gardner and starting pitcher CC Sabathia.
Considering the timeline of the Yankees' spring, they should be thrilled to slip the pinstripes on and get the regular season under way. Without Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter for the opener, the Yanks need to peel the days off the calendar until they can feel whole again.
Sabathia shook his head when asked if his confidence in the Yankees' chances had been shaken, saying, "Injuries are a part of the game, and guys are going to go down. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us. We've got guys in here who can hopefully step up and try to fill the void until these guys come back."
W: Lester L: Sabathia
The Yanks may have given their doubters plenty of ammunition, but inside the clubhouse, there is still optimism. The team moved this winter to retain key members of its pitching staff, and the returning group of Mariano Rivera, Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte projects to be strong.
"I feel good about our team," Pettitte said. "I know we're banged up a little, but I feel good. I think we're going to see what happens. It may make us a little bit tougher, make us better ballplayers out there. We have to grind through this."
In part because they are operating under managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner's goal of reducing payroll beneath $189 million for 2014, the Yankees arrived in camp accepting the reality that they would hit fewer homers and score fewer runs because of the departures of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez.
Understanding that Alex Rodriguez would be on the disabled list until at least the All-Star break, the Yanks signed Kevin Youkilis to handle third base, brought back Ichiro Suzuki on a two-year, $13 million contract and finally inked Travis Hafner with hopes of having him rejuvenate his stroke against right-handed pitching.
"We expect him to be significantly productive," manager Joe Girardi said of Hafner. "As you look at it right now, it's probably going to be in the middle of our order. We need him to be productive."
It was a lineup arrangement that was going to lean heavily on Cano regardless of other events, and the Yankees could not have prepared for a triple whammy of injuries to Granderson, Teixeira and Jeter.
Granderson's fractured right forearm will need until early May to heal, Teixeira is targeting a May or June return from his torn right tendon sheath -- which has a 30 percent chance of requiring season-ending surgery -- and the Yankees are preparing to have Eduardo Nunez play shortstop every day until Jeter proves his left ankle is ready for duty.
"Hopefully I'll continue doing the same things I've been doing every year," Cano said. "Just go out there, play hard and help the team to win games. Hopefully the guys that we have help us to just stay in the race until you get Granderson and Teixeira back."
The Yankees may need to win some tight games in the early going. Girardi told his catchers, Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, to focus on saving runs behind the plate. Hits and homers are a nice bonus, but not as important as working with the pitching staff.
"We know we have to pitch well to win, no matter who's healthy or not," Sabathia said. "So it's up to us to go out and do that."
With the hits accumulating, the Yanks scrambled to patch the ship until their stars are active. Non-roster invitee Juan Rivera has a legitimate chance to fill in at first base for Teixeira, while outfielders Brennan Boesch and Ben Francisco were plucked off the scrap heap from the Tigers and Indians, respectively.
Underwhelmed by the options already in camp, the Yankees worked with the Angels late in the spring to come together on a trade that will import Vernon Wells for immediate help in left field, offering a veteran bat that the Yanks hope will provide some relief for the loss of Granderson.
Starter Phil Hughes is also expected to begin the year on the disabled list, though at least he is expected to rejoin the rotation for the second turn through. The patchwork arrangement is not ideal, given that the hyper-competitive American League East shows no signs of offering the Yankees a breezy path back to October.
General manager Brian Cashman, himself moving around on a scooter after fracturing his right ankle in a skydiving mishap, delivered a telling response when asked late in camp about the glut of health concerns in the organization.
"That's a loaded question," Cashman said. "I don't think anyone's all right. We all have whatever we have. But we're Yankees. We're supposed to get through them."
And so they must. The team believes it is capable of winning enough games to stay in the race until reinforcements can arrive, and Pettitte is among those who wouldn't count the Yankees -- bruised as they may appear -- out of the running.
"I expect us to win the division," Pettitte said. "Until somebody knocks us off, we're the champs of that division. We came four games away from going to the World Series last year; that's a pretty good year. We have a lot of pieces coming back, and hopefully we can do what we want to do, and that's getting to the World Series."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.