The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
Mark Teixeira rested the cast protecting his right wrist on the table as he spoke, another reminder that this New York Yankees season will begin differently than any other in the past two decades.
The Evil Empire is no longer feared. The invincibility it once carried is gone.
A reporter even brought up the “U” word — underdog — and asked a once unthinkable question Saturday: Could the Yankees — with a $225 million payroll — embrace that role?
“Why not? Why not?” Teixeira replied. “There’s always going to be critics. There’s always going to be people telling you you can’t do something.”
That’s an eye-opening statement for a team that has finished first or second in the American League East in 19 of the past 20 seasons, winning five World Series in that span.
Yet the Yankees (95-67 in 2012, division champions) host the Boston Red Sox this afternoon to open their season, defiantly saying nothing has changed. They expect victories. A division title. A long playoff run. Just like always.
But observers predict a third or fourth-place finish. Mediocrity. Even irrelevance.
It doesn’t help that the East includes the rebuilt Blue Jays, the dangerous Orioles and a Rays team that still boasts David Price and Evan Longoria.
“We know our competition is fierce and tough and hungry,” General Manager Brian Cashman said. “We’ve made a lot of enemies the last 20 years. People want to take advantage if we’re down. Our job is to prove we’re not down. Our job is to find a way and we expect to do that.”
“Nothing has changed this year because we’ve had a few injuries,” Teixeira said.
But it’s been more than a few. The Yankees will begin the season without Derek Jeter (left ankle soreness), Alex Rodriguez (left hip surgery), Curtis Granderson (broken right forearm), Teixeira and Phil Hughes (back).
Granted, Hughes is slated to return in early April. Granderson is expected to be back in May. But Rodriguez will not return until midseason if at all. Teixeira could be back in a month — or face season-ending surgery. And Jeter, who turns 39 in June, could be ready in a few days, but also could face lingering issues all season.
However, there might be even more pressing issues that the injuries are obscuring.
The Yankees are old going on geriatric. Mariano Rivera is 43 and returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Andy Pettitte is 40. Hiroki Kuroda is 38. And the aging pitching staff might have to carry the offense.
Then there’s the key players lost from last season’s team.
The Yankees scored only 22 runs last postseason — in nine games — and were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the AL Championship Series. And that was with Nick Swisher (24 home runs), Russell Martin (21), Raul Ibanez (19) and Eric Chavez (16). Now they’re gone.
Eduardo Nunez will start today at shortstop. Lyle Overbay — picked off the scrap heap after he was released by the Red Sox — could start at first base. Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli will platoon behind the plate.
“It’s low expectations outside of the clubhouse. The expectations inside the clubhouse are the same,” Teixeira said. “We hear the chatter. You hear people talk. You hear fans. But we don’t buy into it. …
“We have the same confidence that we’ve always had.”
Pettitte has predicted a division title twice in recent days. He also “expects” the Yankees to reach the World Series.
However, CC Sabathia sees no extra motivation in proving the world wrong.
“I was motivated before everybody got hurt, coming into the season to go out and try to win the championship,” the ace left-hander said. “And that starts with winning the division. So anybody’s picks and everything — that doesn’t weigh on me at all.”