TORONTO — This was supposed to be the year when the annual predictions of the New York Yankees’ demise were really, totally, finally going to come true, with age, injury and a sudden restraint in spending conspiring to knock them from their perch.
Remember when GM Brian Cashman described his winter shopping by saying “beggars can’t be choosers” while preaching patience? Well, nearly three weeks into the season that bottom-feeding looks pretty good on the Bronx Bombers, who spanked Brandon Morrow and the Toronto Blue Jays 9-4 in the opener of a three-game series Friday night.
The Yankees are now 9-6 and second in the American League East, which is only noteworthy because their regulars at the moment include Travis Hafner, Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Francisco Cervelli, Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix. Or, you know, not what they planned.
Still, the cast of retreads is holding the fort admirably well in the absence of difference-makers like Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Michael Pineda, and if they can help the Yankees survive this period of vulnerability, things will get interesting once they start getting whole.
"There's outside expectation and there's what we have in the clubhouse," said Wells, the former Blue Jays star who hit his fourth homer of the season to extend his rebirth after being dealt to New York by the Los Angeles Angels. "Cashman brought in a bunch of veteran guys who have been around the block and seen a lot of different things and asked us to come in and do what we can, not try to shoulder things, not try to replace who isn't there, because you can't replace what's missing.
"Just go out and be a complete lineup, that's what we've done so far."
No arguing that, and in the process, they've eaten into the margin of error for division favourites like the Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays, who have both stumbled out of the gate.
Injuries have bitten the Blue Jays, too, as Jose Reyes is out until the all-star break, Jose Bautista has missed seven games due to back and ankle issues (although he returned to the lineup Friday with a massive two-run shot), Brett Lawrie missed two weeks with an oblique strain and Sergio Santos is on the disabled list with a triceps strain by his elbow.
But they haven't been able to paper over their troubles, as many of their remaining regulars have slumped, with only stopgap shortstop Munenori Kawasaki, plus relievers Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup providing pleasant surprises thus far.
Compounding their problems is that they've allowed the opposition to open the scoring in 12 of their 17 games while being cumulatively outscored 16-9 in the first inning and 14-7 in the second inning. Constant catch-up isn't a very healthy way to play.
With roughly 90 per cent of the season remaining, it's still early, but it's also starting to not be so early anymore.
"In this game there are so many variables that play into a great year and injuries are usually the biggest part of that," said Wells. "Being able to navigate your way around some of those injuries is the most difficult thing to do in this game, especially when you have some of your bigger name guys go down.
"Chemistry is another big thing, you bring in a bunch of new guys, guys getting comfortable in their roles, and in this division, it's the toughest in baseball so everyone is going to be around at the end of this thing."
Wells watched intently as the Blue Jays remade themselves this off-season, recalling the buildup former GM J.P. Ricciardi put together for the 2006 season, when Overbay, Troy Glaus, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and Bengie Molina were acquired over the winter.
The Blue Jays went 87-75 that year, 83-79 in 2007 and 86-76 in 2008, never sniffing the post-season, undone by rosters that were simply too thin to withstand the season's inevitable attrition.
"The depth is what got us," agreed Overbay. "You look at the teams that are successful, you just have to cover yourself for those times that guys are injured, because everybody gets injured. We didn't have that consistency like the Yankees and Red Sox in those years. Somebody went down, they had somebody ready to replace them, and they weren't falling off too much."
The current edition of the Blue Jays was supposed to be built that way, too, but so far that hasn't proven to be the case. And while upside can be found all around the diamond, the first 17 games have done a lot more to expose the roster's faults than demonstrate its virtues.
"You start to gauge expectation and once you get caught up in the expectation of things, you start getting away from the day to day job you have to do," said Wells. "The thing is you can play some really good baseball in this division and be really successful and still find yourself third. That's the nature of the East. To be able to find your way to the top, it takes a lot more than great players, it takes some luck at different times, and it takes some great timing."
The Yankees are certainly getting both of the latter right now, and it's remarkable how often the players they bring into their environment end up overachieving.
"It is (different being a Yankee), and it's because of the tradition that comes with it," said Wells. "When you talk about an organization that won 27 championships and is as thirsty for 28 as a team that doesn't have any, that's what it's all about, and it's about doing your part to help this team win.
"That's all that's talked about."
The Blue Jays are still trying to get there, and approaching three weeks into the 2013 campaign, plenty of work remains.