TAMPA — Resident icons David Ortiz and Derek Jeter may not be ready for Opening Day, April 1, when the Red Sox and Yankees meet at Yankee Stadium.
It’s a given with Ortiz, and now Jeter is dealing with inflammation in his surgically repaired left ankle. While Yankees general manager Brian Cashman throws in the caveat that Jeter defies logic or “always finds a way to work through things,” he isn’t sure about Jeter’s ability to make the Opening Day lineup.
Of course, the Yankees were a medical mess even prior to the Jeter setback, losing Alex Rodriguez (hip surgery), Curtis Granderson (broken forearm), and Mark Teixeira (wrist). That’s three heavyweights. Yet Jeter, who broke his ankle in last year’s playoffs, is the glue, the centerpiece that makes all things possible and has for years. Ortiz, likewise, is the centerpiece of the Boston lineup, the power guy, the run producer.
Both teams now must find a way to get it done without their star players, one of whom (Ortiz) is 37 and the other (Jeter) 38.
“I was raised under the Boss,” Cashman said, “and under the Boss, no excuses.
“These are obstacles you deal with and you find a way to get over it. Nobody cares about it. All that matters is what you put in that win column. That’s the job description, period. You have to figure it out. You have to find a way.”
It’s hard to see that path right now for the Yankees. One or two guys being out is one thing, but if Jeter becomes, like Ortiz, a prolonged process, then what? The Yankees have Eduardo Nunez to take Jeter’s place, but he’s not Jeter.
“It’s a time issue,” said Cashman, who coincidentally broke his ankle this month in a skydiving accident and is getting around on a scooter. “Over time, he’ll find a way through it. If anybody can do it, Derek Jeter can.”
While the Red Sox will have a revolving door at DH (including Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jonny Gomes, or even Mike Napoli), the Yankees are plugging in Juan Rivera at first base and Melky Mesa in center.
They are relying on a Kevin Youkilis rebirth, and a superstar season from Robinson Cano, who no longer has great protection around him in the lineup. In right field, they will go with Ben Francisco/Brennan Boesch.
The Yankees will likely pick up a hitter before the start of the season, but how much impact he will have remains to be seen. There has been talk about Alfonso Soriano from the Cubs, but the Yankees have tried to stay away from players who would require playing time when the injured ones come back.
The saving grace is the starting rotation, where CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and Ivan Nova are solid (if Kuroda and Pettitte hold up over a full year). They also have the comebacking Mariano Rivera to close.
When baseball people are asked to predict the last-place team in the AL East, the Yankees lately have unseated the Red Sox as the most popular pick. That’s why Cashman is taking a long-view approach.
“One-sixty-two,” said Cashman. “It’s a long season. We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure when the dust settles you’re asking us, ‘How did you get through this?’ rather than, ‘How did you allow this to bury you?’
“We’re not going to allow this to bury us. We can’t.”
As he spoke, Cashman wondered whether he had insulted Jeter in any way by suggesting he may not be ready to play — the kind of thing that could turn up on the back pages of the New York tabloids.
“This player isn’t the easiest one, because he plays through anything and tolerates it all, and he’s not necessarily the most vocal if anything is barking,” said Cashman. “He’s going to have ups and downs in the early portion of it.
“It still is really early in the process. We have to make sure it’s the right steps.”
Meanwhile, in Fort Myers, Ortiz, who has shut down his running program for more than a week after experiencing inflammation in his heels, graduated to soft toss Wednesday, taking 50 swings at balls flipped to him by coaching staff assistant Ino Guerrero.
Head athletic trainer Rick Jameyson and physical therapist Dan Dyrek were on hand to monitor Ortiz, who on Tuesday took 50 swings at balls on a tee.
Ortiz took some hefty swings and left the batting cage walking normally. The Red Sox are in the process of building him back up after a nine-day layoff because of the inflammation, a residual effect of the Achilles’ tendon injury he had last season.
Ortiz eventually will get to batting practice on the field and then running the bases, which was when his latest setback occurred. If he is able to run the bases, Ortiz would then play in his first game this spring.
In both cases, the teams are handling their players with care. Cashman emphasized that it’s not about getting ready for Opening Day with Jeter. The same is true for Ortiz.
“Opening Day is not in the scope of treatment in this case,” Cashman said. “We’re just doing what’s best for him. Treat this injury and get it behind him as soon as possible.
“It’s pretty remarkable he’s doing what he’s doing but he is, as we know, a remarkable individual regardless. Because of who he is, I can’t rule anything out.”