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Veteran Yankees trying to hold off their demise

Yankees manager Joe Girardi

DAVID GOLDMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Yankees manager Joe Girardi watches his team Sunday. He’s optimistic about the season, but expects challenges.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — We await the Yankees’ demise.

Year after year we say, “Ah, they’re old. They will break down.” The All-Star-at-every-position days are over. The Evil Empire finally will crumble to dust and all of Red Sox Nation will rejoice.

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“It’s crept up for 10 years,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said about the topic of the team’s age. “At some point they’re going to be right. It seemed to work out pretty well the last 10 years for us.”

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia isn’t buying the end-of-the-Yankees talk.

“I heard that last year and they won 95 games,” he said. “I’m sick of hearing it. I don’t buy it. They’re the Yankees and they’ll always be good. Every game against that staff is going to be tough. They can pitch, they can score a lot of runs. That’s all you need to know.”

With a less-than-representative Yankees squad making the trip to JetBlue Park Sunday on a chilly afternoon during which the temperature barely made it to 60 degrees, Girardi said this season will be a bit more challenging even though he finished first in the AL East last season after losing Mariano Rivera during the first week of May.

Before camp began, Alex Rodriguez announced he was having hip surgery and would miss more than half the season. Phil Hughes, a starting pitcher they will rely heavily upon, was diagnosed with a bulging disk. Hughes is at least two weeks behind after resting the back. Then, 40-plus-homer outfielder Curtis Granderson broke his hand when hit with a pitch.

The good news is that shortstop Derek Jeter should be good to go after breaking his ankle. Rivera looks like himself after major reconstructive knee injury.

“There are more decisions we have to make, in part because of the Granderson injury,” Girardi said. “We don’t know who the righthanded bat is going to be for the fourth outfielder. There’s a bit of competition for the fifth spot in the rotation. Depth issues in the bullpen.”

After Sunday’s game, in which Girardi’s junior varsity beat the Red Sox, 5-2, the Yankees manager indicated that Melky Mesa might be in line for a starting job in center field and that Brett Gardner likely will stay in left for the season, even after Granderson returns in early May.

And after the Yankees let Russell Martin escape to the Pirates in free agency, the catching situation is also a big question mark, though Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart likely will be the choices and both are very good defensively.

“That’s OK with me,” Girardi said. “Sometimes it’s underrated how many runs a catcher can save during the course of the year.

“You can look at ERAs [with] certain catchers, they’re lower sometimes, blocking balls, framing pitches, throwing base runners out. You can save some runs as a catcher. And I think the game is moving toward that probably because of [steroid] testing, so there aren’t as many home runs hit and it’s a different game.”

Girardi likes his starting rotation — CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Ivan Nova, and Hughes, with David Phelps and Adam Warren in reserve.

“I do like it,” he said. “We have a couple of lefties, different looks from our righthanders. We have depth with Nova and Phelps. At some point we should get [Michael] Pineda back [he missed all of last season with labrum surgery]. It gives us some depth if there are injuries there.”

But is it realistic to depend on the 40-year-old Pettitte for 30 starts?

“I think that’s hopeful,” Girardi said. “We’ve really got to watch him and be smart like we are with some of our positional players. If he needs an extra day or needs to be skipped one time, you might have to do it. But he looks great.”

Girardi is also optimistic about the arms the Yankees have watched in training camp.

“We have a kid — [Jose] Ramirez — he has a chance to be special,” he said. “He throws 94-95 with a good changeup and a developing slider. Very mature for a kid 23 years old. That was one of the first things that impressed me, when throwing batting practice against our veteran hitters he threw 18 out of 25 for strikes. It’s not easy for a young kid first time in camp. It didn’t seem to bother him that all of us were standing around watching him. That can be intimidating, but it didn’t faze him in the least.”

General manager Brian Cashman is always capable of swinging a big deal. Sometimes Cashman lulls you to sleep and then comes up with a big move that nobody saw coming.

He likely is looking for that whopper deal for an outfielder.

The obvious fit is former Yankee and current Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who is coming off one of his best seasons — 32 homers and 108 RBIs for the 101-loss Cubs. Yankees special assistant Jim Hendry is the former Cubs GM who signed Soriano with Chicago and always has sworn by the player.

The entire division could be bunched up. The team with the fewest injuries, the one that makes the best in-season acquisitions, likely will emerge from the pack.

“I think you could argue it’s the toughest the division has ever been,” Girardi said. “With the improvement Baltimore made last year, that Toronto made in the offseason . . . Tampa Bay is always going to be there and Boston is always going to be there.”

The Yankees, along with the Red Sox and the Orioles, are most often mentioned to finish last in the AL East. All of them also could finish first. It’s shaping up as that type of season, at least here in March.

“There’s four weeks of spring training left and that’s a long time,” Girardi said. “We hope to have some answers. We hope they’re internal answers because we have a lot of people here hungry to make this team. There are a lot of good things. We just have to get healthy and stay healthy.”

That’s the ageless question.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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