TAMPA — This time, no one asked about dynasties. This time, no one asked about rings.
This time, no one asked about the new thumper from free agency who was brought in to boost a lineup already jammed with Hall of Famers.
Sometimes, it is easier to judge the truth of a franchise by the weight of the questions rather than by the tone of the answers. So it is with the New York Yankees, and so it was when manager Joe Girardi sat in front of a room Monday and answered questions that are usually saved for a mortal baseball team.
Who is going to be the fifth starter, and for that matter, the fourth? Is the captain still good enough to bat leadoff? Why, exactly, do you still believe in A.J. Burnett?
Oh, and then there was this one:
In the American League East, do you consider the Yankees to be underdogs?
In most seasons, on those days when pitchers and catchers show up for work, those are the questions reserved for, say, the manager of the Orioles. Maybe the Blue Jays.
For the Yankees, such days are reserved for the annual parading of the new stars. Over the years, no one has had more advantages than the Yankees, and no one has taken quite as much pride in showing them off on the day the balls were uncrated.
This is a curious time in the history of the Yankees, however. They are at the end of a bizarre, unfulfilling offseason. There have been headlines about the kind of hardball played by the Yankees in the Derek Jeter negotiations, and whether Alex Rodriguez was ticked that TV cameras showed Cameron Diaz feeding him popcorn, about Andy Pettitte retiring, about general manager Brian Cashman getting overruled in the Rafael Soriano signing, about Cashman daring to mention "Jeter" and "centerfield" in the same sentence, about Cashman acknowledging the Red Sox were better "on paper." With the Yankees, there are always headlines.
This time, however, there were no headlines about the new stars added to the constellation. The Yankees had 113 days of offseason, and in none of them did they sign Cliff Lee or Carl Crawford or trade for Zack Greinke. Or, for that matter, any player who might provide a reasonable way to believe the Yankees might overcome the Boston Red Sox in the AL East this season.
Still, the Yankees?
"I don't know if you're ever a New York Yankee — ever since I've been here — that you ever feel you're the underdog," Girardi said. "It just sounds kind of funny to hear someone say that."
Maybe, but how else could you handicap it when the Yankees' rotation is such a riddle? CC Sabathia is a star, especially now that he has lost 25 pounds on the "throw away the Cap'n Crunch diet," and Phil Hughes was very good last year. But after that, you have Burnett and a bunch of guys ready for their auditions. All we know for sure about the Yankees' starters is that everyone except Joba Chamberlain seems to be a candidate.
In a pitcher's game, in a pitcher's division, that's a sobering thought. Despite all the All-Star Games packed into the Yankees' batting order, it's hard to win the AL East by clubbing the other teams into submission.
That's why the failure to sign Lee still stings a lot of Yankee fans. With him, the rotation was better, and the possibilities were greater. Besides, Lee was exactly the kind of player the Yankees have signed over the years.
Only problem: Lee chose the Phillies.
Girardi, for the record, says his expectations have not changed.
"We wouldn't come to spring training if we didn't expect to win the division," Girardi said. "I'd have a hard time with our ballclub if it didn't expect to win the division. That's the mind-set everyone needs to have."
Still, there is a lot of uncertainty to the Yankees, and much of it seems to surround Jeter and his spot in the order. Girardi says Jeter was re-signed to bat leadoff and play shortstop, but that doesn't stop the questions. In a way, the questions about Jeter seem to reflect the questions about the franchise as a whole.
"He had a couple of rough months last year, but in September, he was back to being Derek, I thought," Girardi said. "I'm not too concerned about him as our leadoff hitter, but as we all know in this game, you have to prove yourself year in and year out no matter who you are. That's just the nature of the game."
So, too, are question marks. And it is fair to say the Yankees enter the season with the look of a wild card to them. Ask yourself this: Where are the Yankees better than last year's second-place team? Soriano in the eighth? Russell Martin behind the plate? Where else?
Does that give the reassembled Rays hope? Perhaps, if their bullpen holds up.
"They lost some pieces," Girardi said of the Rays. "Some in the bullpen, some everyday players, a starter. But they are still a young, energetic ballclub. They have a solid rotation. They're still a very, very tough team, and they're going to create problems for all of us."
As for the Yankees, the question remains: What kind of problems are they going to give other teams? They can still hit. They have a fine bullpen. They have the money to add reinforcements along the way.
Odds are, they'll be good.
Odds are, they won't be good enough.