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Yanks need aging stars to produce

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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They call it the young man’s game and for good reason. The post-steroids industry has fallen in love with run-prevention, which is to say, pitching-and-defense is the new three-run HR. Every GM has the same prototype of the ideal asset, too: under 30 and under contract control.

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Look no further than the Rays for a vision of the future. But that doesn’t mean everyone is following the same path.

The Yankees’ best hitter (Robinson Cano) might be only 29 and the next closer (David Robertson) will be 27 in April. And their prize acquisition this winter (Michael Pineda) is a tender 23. But the Bombers will have a hard time holding off the Rays in the East unless they get at least career-norm production from no less than three aging players.

Consider Mariano Rivera (42), Derek Jeter (37) and Alex Rodriguez (36) — and that’s not even taking into account 37-year-old Hiroki Kuroda’s assimilation to the American League, or 39-year-old Raul Ibanez, the game’s oldest DH, as the new home run threat in the Bronx.

Can the Yankees continue their run despite flaunting the industry’s business plan? Rivera is as close to a guarantee as the Yankees can count on, but it’s anyone’s guess whether Jeter can match his .338 average from the final three months of the 2011 season, or whether A-Rod can stay healthy enough to matter.

Interestingly, some talent evaluators believe it’s Mark Teixeira who represents the key to the Yankees’ success. Unless he can improve his .224 average from the left side, the Yankees will again have to rely heavily on Curtis Granderson and Cano for run-production in the postseason. That’s a recipe for the same first-round exit they suffered in ’11 against the Tigers.

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That is, unless Jeter proves his second-half surge was no fluke, and whether Rodriguez can get back to playing 130-140 games a year. He’s been on the disabled list in each of the last four seasons, most recently dealing with the after-effects of a torn meniscus in his right knee. Doctors proclaimed A-Rod fit to return to the lineup at the end of August, but he still couldn’t rescue a lost campaign — which expired, fittingly, with a Division Series-ending strikeout against Jose Valverde.

It feels like a million years ago that A-Rod dwarfed the mortals around him. It wasn't just the home runs, it was the sheer indestructibility that separated him. Maybe it was all fueled by steroids, but Rodriguez appeared in 1,114 games in his age 25-through-31 seasons, an average of 159 per. But that was before a series of setbacks and injuries to his hip, shoulder, knee and thumb.

“There’s no question I have limitations that I didn’t have when I was 27 or 28 or even 32 (when he won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2007),” said Rodriguez, who appeared in just 99 games last year, the first time he’s been under 100 in a decade.

He insists he feels “great” this spring after deciding not to bulk up in the weight room and punish himself with cardiovascular drills. Instead, A-Rod has moved closer to a yoga-like regimen, focusing on stretching and range-of-motion exercises. As for that knee, Rodriguez is hopeful that an offseason trip to Germany, where he underwent Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) therapy, will allow him to play an entire season without pain.

Rodriguez might not ever be the monster who terrified opposing pitchers, but he’s still counting on batting cleanup in the Bronx. But should he be? “Don’t give Joe (Girardi) any ideas,” he joked with reporters, although it’s probably too late for that.

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The Yankees are well aware that Cano is the team’s best run producer, and that the only remaining intrigue is how to best camouflage A-Rod’s and Teixeira’s combined deficits in the Nos. 3 and 5 spots.

Of course, Joe Girardi won’t dare entertain questions about flip-flopping Cano into the No. 4 slot, hopeful that an A-Rod renaissance will snuff out any controversy before it mushrooms in April or May. The manager is just as thankful he isn’t being probed about Jeter’s decline as he was last spring.

The captain bought himself some time with an impressive finish in 2011, easing the concerns that’d gained momentum between the start of 2010 and July 8 of last year. During that span, Jeter’s OPS had sunk to the mid-600s, nearly 200 points below his career norms.

Nothing seemed to go right for the franchise’s most popular player — even his reputation for delivering in the clutch was tainted. Jeter’s average with runners in scoring position fell to .243. But all that changed with that 5-for-5 masterpiece against the Rays, the day Jeter finally reached his 3,000th career hit. After that, he invited the world into his personal time tunnel, batting .338 over a 266 at-bat span, including .355 with runners in scoring position, even solving right-handed pitching to the tune of .315.

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Jeter is loath to think he can’t duplicate those numbers in 2012, insisting, “it’s all about being healthy and feeling good.” Once he recovered from last summer’s torn calf muscle, the rest was just, “getting my timing back.”

The history books aren’t quite as convinced. Only two shortstops have ever been as productive as Jeter as this age — Hall of Famers Luke Appling and Honus Wagner — and Jeter begins the season as the oldest player at his position.

The same goes for Rivera, whose seniority trumps every other closer. At 42, however, the Yankee right-hander says the end is in sight, dropping one hint after another about retiring after the season.

Rivera admits his perspective on baseball changed radically over the winter, when doctors found polyps on his vocal chords. Although biopsies revealed no malignancies, a shaken Rivera said, “I was worried about cancer.” The subsequent surgery left him unable to speak for an entire week, and he emerged from the episode convinced, “there is so much more to my life (than playing for the Yankees.)”

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The good news is that Robertson appears to have the swing-and-miss arsenal to succeed Rivera, although it remains to be seen if he’s emotionally equipped for the nightly stress. If nothing else, Robertson has the best possible teacher in Rivera, who could probably keep closing into his late 40s, if he could accept a slight age-related decline.

But that’ll never happen, according to Rivera, who says, “I don’t want be to seen that way.” Gods never want to look like mortals, especially on the way out the door.

Tagged: Yankees, Rays, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, David Robertson

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