With stars sidelined, new Yanks weathering storm
Revamped heart of lineup featuring Youkilis, Wells, Hafner filling in admirably
NEW YORK -- The Yankees could easily keep track of the injury updates trickling into their depleted clubhouse and see that help is on the way, but thanks to the production from their new faces, no one has been caught staring toward the door waiting for more familiar names to walk in.
What seemed to be a patchwork lineup in the closing days of the spring is taking shape, as Kevin Youkilis, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner are comprising the revamped heart of the order that has the Yanks feeling good about their standing in the American League East.
"Especially after being 1-4, I think our guys have done very well and responded very well to a slow start," manager Joe Girardi said of his 6-5 club. "I'm happy with what these guys have done so far, the way they have shown their character. Guys have stepped up and done a good job in some peoples' absence."
Youkilis hit safely in his first nine games of the season, the first Yankee in his debut season to accomplish that feat since 1945, while Wells and Hafner have each slugged three homers and are riding batting averages above .300 to begin their first seasons wearing pinstripes.
For a club that has dealt with so many star-studded setbacks, watching Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson go down to injury and playing without Alex Rodriguez until at least the All-Star break, general manager Brian Cashman's maneuvers to add battle-tested veterans seem to have cushioned the blows.
"I think that's why Cash brought us here," said Wells, who was acquired from the Angels in late March. "[We are] a bunch of veteran guys who have been through ups and downs and have seen the best and worst of this game. To be able to come here as a group and help each other and help this ballclub to be where we are right now, you can't ask for more than that."
There's more. Outfielder Brennan Boesch is hitting .313 (5-for-16) after being cut loose this spring by the Tigers, while first baseman Lyle Overbay was scooped off baseball's scrap heap in late March after being released by the Red Sox and is hitting .282 (11-for-39).
A soft-spoken veteran who has played with five other big league clubs, Overbay chuckled that he doesn't know if he will ever get used to the big stage of New York, but he and the rest of the replacement Yankees are doing a good job of making themselves seem at home.
"We're getting the timely hitting," Overbay said. "That's the key when you don't have the big boppers. We can still hit the home runs, but we're not relying on that."
Girardi has noticed that his new cogs have taken on leadership roles in the clubhouse, fitting in seamlessly behind a hierarchy that includes established fixtures like ace CC Sabathia and second baseman Robinson Cano. Girardi said that he has been pleased by that development, but isn't surprised.
"It wasn't like we brought up four rookies or four one-year players and said, 'Hey, you're going to play an important role, you've got to go out and do the job,'" Girardi said. "You've got to represent the club. I think it comes natural for them, because they've been in those positions before. Vernon was a star in Toronto. Hafner was a star in Cleveland. Youkilis was a star in Boston. These guys are used to performing at a very high level."
Youkilis quickly tired of questions about his Red Sox history, joking that he hasn't had a moment at third base where he has been distracted by admiring the pinstripes on his chest. In his mind, the only objective is to win games, and there is a great victory for Youkilis in proving some outside voices wrong so far.
"I think we all had confidence within ourselves, and that's probably been the biggest talk: no one's had confidence in us," Youkilis said. "So we stick together as a team and keep trying to have good at-bats. For us personally, it's just going out there every day and trying to do that. It's not going to happen every day, of course, but I think guys are trying to learn from their strengths and work on their weaknesses."
Wells fits in that group, having worked to shorten his swing and use the whole field more. He was elated to be acquired by the Yanks after heading into the spring as the Halos' fifth outfielder: when the Angels told him of his potential destination, seeking his approval to waive a no-trade clause, Wells' father gleefully told his son, "I guess I can die soon."
"From Day 1 of being here, you look down and see an 'NY' on your chest, it's special," Wells said. "Guys relish the opportunity to put this uniform on and hopefully experience what this organization is accustomed to experiencing, and that's winning."
The Yankees got a good glimpse of both Hafner's power and flair for the dramatic when he cleared the center-field fence in his first at-bat against the Indians last week, punishing his former team in a return to Progressive Field after 10 seasons in Cleveland.
Hafner said that he didn't expect to be hitting in the middle of the Yankees' order so early in the season, but after being limited to an average of 86 games over the last five seasons due to injuries, belting homers sure beats watching from the disabled list.
"I was working on a bunch of things mechanically, and then basically scrapped everything and really tried to simplify my swing to the point where there's nothing going on," Hafner said. "And I've had a lot of success with that, it feels really good and really simple. Hopefully I've found something that I can be really good and consistent with."
Cashman has been blunt in his assessment that the Yankees will not get anywhere near the home run production of last season, when they set a franchise record with 245 homers, but thus far they haven't had a need to put the Bronx Bombers nickname into storage.
New York's 18 long balls entering Monday's off-day were good for second in the AL, behind only the Athletics' 19. That production might not hold up over 162 games, but then again, this is not the lineup the Yanks plan to field for the entire summer. The formula is working for now.
"Youkilis, Hafner, Overbay, Wells -- they're doing a pretty good job," Cano said. "That's what you want, guys to come here, feel like they're at home and help us win games."
Reinforcements are on the way. The Yankees should have Granderson and Teixeira back some time in May; Teixeira's looming return puts a clock on Overbay's time in pinstripes, while Granderson's return could impact the still-hitless Ben Francisco (0-for-8), as well as the playing time of either Wells or the struggling Ichiro Suzuki (.176).
Details have grown cloudier with Jeter, who is still recovering from left ankle surgery and a late March setback in Tampa, Fla., but at some point, Jeter should get into Minor League rehab games and progress to reclaim his shortstop position from Eduardo Nunez.
In the meantime, the Yanks are enjoying the production and influence being shown by a batting order largely cobbled together out of necessity.
"I think top to bottom, for us, it's just keeping the line moving and trying to get those hits," Youkilis said. "And sometimes it's not getting hits, it's working good at-bats, it's getting deep in the count, fouling off pitches and getting into the bullpen as fast as possible. That's the type of lineup we can have."