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Despite departures, Yankees' expectations remain unchanged

TAMPA — Their legendary closer is gone.

Their longtime captain will join him in retirement after this season.

While the Yankees have the task of replacing Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning and are bracing for shortstop Derek Jeter's farewell tour, their high expectations remain unchanged.

They've added significant free agents such as Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, catcher Brian McCann and outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran in hopes of returning to the postseason, which they missed last season for just the second time in 19 years.

But that doesn't mean it will be easy. Joe Girardi noted he might have an entirely different opening day lineup than last season.

"I do believe this is the biggest transition I've been through with players from top to bottom," said Girardi, who enters his seventh season as New York's manager. "I need to learn a lot of new faces fairly quick."

The Yankees' $471 million free agent makeover helped cushion the blow of Rivera's retirement and loss of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano to Seattle.

"It seemed like every other week we were getting another great free agent," said McCann, a former Braves All-Star who signed for five years, $85 million. "You look around, and it's a very exciting team."

However, as pitchers and catchers reported Friday, a familiar face, their noticeably slimmer ace, CC Sabathia, could hold the key to the Yankees' chances.

Sabathia, who weighed 315 two years ago but is now 275 after losing 10 more pounds since last spring training, is coming off an admittedly bad season (14-13, 4.78) in which the left-hander gave up a majors-most 122 runs.

"I felt like The Biggest Loser last year," said Sabathia, 33, referring to the reality TV show. "I lost a lot of weight, but I just wasn't physically ready to go out and play."

But after recovering from a season-ending left hamstring injury, Sabathia got stronger and healthier during a full offseason of workouts and said he's ready to bounce back, believing he has something to prove.

"Nobody wants to go through that again," he said of last year. "It stuck with me a lot; just feeling disappointed and not being able to help this team win. I feel like if I could have been a little better, we might have made the playoffs. I blamed myself for a long time in the offseason, and now I'm over it and ready to go."

If Sabathia is back to his 2007 Cy Young form, the Yankees' rotation — an issue in previous seasons — could be formidable with Hiroki Kuroda, Tanaka, Ivan Nova and a yet-to-be-determined No. 5.

Girardi said the lineup will be deeper and more balanced than last season. There are still question marks defensively and in the bullpen, most important who fills the shoes of Rivera, the majors' all-time saves leader.

Rivera has endorsed setup man David Robertson, 28, who Girardi said has "all the ability in the world."

"I don't expect to step in and be Mariano Rivera. I'm not. Everybody knows that," Robertson said. "I think I have the abilities to be the closer. It's not proven yet, but I know in my heart I can do it."

Girardi said he had "no inkling" about Jeter's plans to retire, so he was surprised by the 13-time All-Star's announcement Wednesday.

Girardi said Jeter, 39, will play shortstop "as much as he's capable of playing." The team plans to enjoy the final year with Jeter and, maybe, send him off with a sixth world championship.

"I feel like he's going to go out with a bang," Robertson said.

A-Rod who? Alex Rodriguez's spring training locker has been kept open by the Yankees. Suspended for the season for violations of the drug agreement and labor contract, the third baseman had used the stall just to the side of the back entrance of the clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field. There was no nameplate on it Friday and no uniforms hanging inside. Beltran was assigned the adjacent locker. Rodriguez, whose suspension doesn't cover spring training, is eligible to return next year, when he turns 40, and has three seasons left on his record $275 million, 10-year contract. Tanaka, meanwhile, was given the locker used by Rivera. "I'm not really sure if I should be here," Tanaka said, via an interpreter, of the stall.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Major changes

The Yankees' opening day lineup in 2013, when they missed the playoffs, and the projected one for opening day in 2014:

2013

Brett GardnerCenterfield
Eduardo NunezShortstop
Robinson CanoSecond base
Kevin YoukilisFirst base
Vernon WellsLeftfield
Ben FranciscoDH
Ichiro SuzukiRightfield
Jayson NixThird base
Francisco CervelliCatcher

2014

Jacoby EllsburyCenterfield
Derek JeterShortstop
Carlos BeltranRightfield
Mark TeixeiraFirst base
Brian McCannCatcher
Alfonso SorianoDH
Brett GardnerLeftfield
Kelly JohnsonThird base
Brian RobertsSecond base

Despite departures, Yankees' expectations remain unchanged 02/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 10:33pm]

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