Yankees handling the early adversity

Derek Jeter is batting .219, with one extra-base hit. Phil Hughes, last year’s No. 2 starter, is on the disabled list. No rotation has delivered fewer innings this year than that of the New York Yankees.

“It’s got to improve,” Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said regarding the last of those concerns. “Right now, it’s been hectic, with Phil not having the arm strength. We were relying on three guys to build around. You lose one of those, and it becomes tough. Hopefully, he comes back and is able to give us the innings we need.”

Based on that information, you may be surprised to read the following sentence:

This season is playing right into the Yankees’ experienced hands.

They are first in the American League East after 16 games. I expect them to be in the same position after 162.

The Yankees were my preseason pick as the division champion. For them, the scariest April scenario would have involved a scorching start by the rival Red Sox, fueled by impact additions Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Perhaps you’ve heard: That didn’t happen. Boston is 6-11, and Jed Lowrie is the team leader in RBIs.

When asked about Boston’s “start” to the season, Jeter responded straight out of the Book of Conventional Wisdom.

“It’s not a start — two weeks is not a ‘start,’” he said. “You have to get at least a month, month and a half into the season, before it’s a ‘start.’ They can win six games in a row, can’t they? Then everyone says how hot they are.”

But doesn’t it count for something that New York leads the majors in home runs and slugging percentage, with a pitching staff that already has improved on the fly? Hughes and his “dead arm” are gone from the rotation for at least a couple of weeks, enabling the mercurial veteran Bartolo Colon to sling his two- and four-seam fastballs as a starter once more.

On Wednesday, Colon made his first major-league start since July 24, 2009 — when a family issue in his native Dominican Republic forced him to return home, nearly ending his career. Colon, 37, began this season as a reliever, but he won’t go back to the bullpen if he keeps pitching like this: 6 2/3 innings, two earned runs, seven strikeouts and a victory over Toronto.

Colon’s fastball has late “running” action. It veers into the hands of right-handed hitters, resulting in iffy swings and off-the-handle dribblers. “To have a ball move that much, it’s like Mariano in reverse,” Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson observed.

Colon doesn’t have the velocity he once did. Whatever. The layoff didn’t rob him of the command that helped make him a Cy Young Award winner six years ago. Colon and Freddy Garcia — pick-me-up purchases after Cliff Lee chose Philly — have combined for a 2-1 record and 2.88 ERA.

“Tremendous,” Yankees catcher Russell Martin said. “Both of those guys deserve the opportunities they’re getting right now.”

It’s all part of the plan, you see: Pitch decently. Bludgeon the ball. Remain at or near the top of the division. Swing a midseason trade or promote Manny Banuelos in July.

The Yankees are playing roster rope-a-dope, in a way that would make Ali proud. The AL East isn’t as top-heavy as it once was — more on that later — but the Yankees remain well-positioned to reach the postseason for the 16th time in 17 years.

I’m not suggesting that the Yankees have a great rotation. They don’t. Without Hughes, the starting five includes CC Sabathia (almost always reliable), A.J. Burnett (occasionally reliable), and the trio of Colon, Garcia and Ivan Nova (if … if … if).

When play began Wednesday, the Yankees had a league-worst 5.26 rotation ERA.

Fortunately for Joe Girardi, his guys get to bat nine times, too. No one said Colon, Garcia and Nova were expected to channel Mike Mussina for 200 innings apiece. They just need to win their share of 9-7, 8-6 and 7-5 games, while waiting for reinforcements.

And the Yankees have the lineup to do that.

Let’s begin at third base, because, like the Greek delegation at the Opening Ceremonies, it always starts with Alex Rodriguez. He returned to the lineup Wednesday, after missing two games because of an injured rib cage muscle. A-Rod had productive at-bats and drilled a sacrifice fly to the fringe of the warning track, suggesting that all is quite well with his 35-year-old torso.

Rodriguez described the evening as “a big relief,” and the Yankees most certainly agree. He has the best OPS in the majors (1.271), while serving notice to a simple truth: When he is completely healthy, he’s an MVP candidate.

“He’s been locked in since spring training started,” Jeter said.

Granderson, hitting for power in Year 2 as a Yankee, is actually tied with two players for the AL home run lead — and one is teammate Mark Teixeira. Martin, meanwhile, is hitting far better than expected. Robinson Cano is checking in at a steady .303. So it goes with the slugging Yankees. It’s funny: Other teams think they have good rotations — until they face these guys.

But no one, not even the Yankees, is good enough to run away with the AL East. The Other Three — Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto — will be difficult to sweep in any given series because of their power-stuff starters. Extended winning streaks are going to be scarce. Competitively speaking, the divisional race will be one goal-line plunge after another for the next five months.

And, yes, the Yankees will have enough starting pitching to compete. Rothschild said he hopes Hughes will return by early May. The real intrigue will come later. Banuelos, the spring sensation, began his season with eight scoreless innings (over two starts) at Class AA. Apart from the prized lefty, the Yankees have options old (Kevin Millwood, prepping at Class AA) and new (Adam Warren, the Class AAA prospect who tossed eight shutout innings Wednesday).

At the moment, the Yankees are the lone AL East team with a winning record — a somewhat surprising distinction, even if it is only April 21. When I mentioned that factoid to Jeter, he offered a wry smile and said, “Do you really think we’re going to be the only team this year to have a winning record in our division?”

A fair point. But I don’t see a better team in the AL East. Jeter may have warned me against drawing conclusions this early in the season, but here’s one I’ll offer now: The Yankees’ lineup will make their own pitchers look good — and other pitchers look bad — all the way to October.