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For Tampa Bay Rays, youth can be a healthy asset against the Yankees and Red Sox

FORT MYERS — The surgery is scheduled for sometime today. The final cost will not be known until October.

So it goes in the American League East, where the separation of power seems less expansive than it has in years. One third baseman goes down in the spring and three teams are suddenly recalculating their chances for the fall.

Such is the fallout of Alex Rodriguez's decision Sunday to have arthroscopic hip surgery. After spending more money in the offseason than the rest of the American League combined, the Yankees look slightly more vulnerable this morning.

Maybe, in this case, the impact turns out to be negligible. Rodriguez, 33, should be back in May, and, let's face it, the Yankees have the ability to seek a longer-term replacement if necessary. Even so, it is hard not to look at this sort of happening in terms of how it affects Tampa Bay's chances of defending the AL East title.

For, in a way, it is one area where the Rays would seem to have a built-in advantage on New York and Boston. The Rays do not spend as much. They are not as experienced. Their track record of success is not nearly as long.

But the Rays are younger. Much, much younger. And that should give them a better chance of staying healthy.

"Generally speaking, young players are in a better position to stave off injury than older players," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Having said that, so much of it is determined by the conditioning of a specific player. If you have a young player who doesn't take care of his body, you mitigate some of that advantage."

Obviously, the Rays are not immune to injury. It didn't matter that Carl Crawford was only 27 and in fine health when a checked swing led to surgery on a tendon in a finger in August. And it didn't matter that Evan Longoria was 22 when his wrist was fractured by a pitch a few days after Crawford went down.

Injuries can't be predicted, nor can they always be prevented. The best a team can hope for is its fair share of luck and a dugout stocked with adequate replacements.

But there is something to be said for limiting exposure. And, right now, the Rays appear to be in better shape than the Red Sox or Yankees when it comes to cutting down on disabled list traffic.

Five of the nine hitters in Boston's lineup will be 33 or older this season. Ditto for New York. For the Rays, meanwhile, platoon rightfielder Gabe Kapler is the only hitter in that category.

And age is not the only issue the Red Sox and Yankees face.

J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz all missed large chunks of last season with injuries, averaging 110 games among them. Lowell had a hip injury similar to A-Rod's, which required offseason surgery. He is still not running. Ortiz had a bad wrist that kept him out of the lineup for two months and led to his worst season since he was a part-time player in Minnesota. Drew, who has struggled to stay on the field for much of his career, missed a month with a bad back.

Maybe, like those of Crawford and Longoria, their injuries were flukes. Maybe they were just the inevitable casualties of a physical game. Still, you are more likely to raise an eyebrow when the third baseman is 35 and the rightfielder and DH are 33.

Or, in the case of the Yankees, when your catcher, Jorge Posada, is coming off shoulder surgery at 37. Or your DH, Hideki Matsui, is 34 and coming off knee surgery.

"So youth as a trade-off for experience … maybe that's a fair way to look at it," manager Joe Maddon said. "You would think our guys would have a much better chance of remaining on the field as compared to some guys on other teams. Although last year, as it happens, we lost a lot of these guys. Because baseball can be freakish. It's not just pulling a muscle. You can get hit by a pitch; you can get hurt on a slide. It's so hard to predict all of that stuff.

"I do like the idea that we found out, if some of our frontline guys go down, we have some really nice replacement parts. What Willy (Aybar) did last year was phenomenal. What (Ben) Zobrist did toward the end of the year? Phenomenal."

Again, nothing is guaranteed. Tampa Bay had the youngest rotation in the league in 2008 and got more starts out of its front five guys than any other team. Does that mean the Rays are in position for another injury-free season from all of those 20-something starters, or are they now defying the odds for a healthy 2009?

And Tampa Bay does have its own injury issues this spring. Carlos Peña, 30, is just now back in the lineup after abdominal surgery, and it is still unclear whether B.J. Upton, 24, will be ready for opening day after shoulder surgery. Not to mention closer Troy Percival, who is the oldest Ray at 39 and coming off back surgery.

For now, it is all guesswork. Just a connecting of dots as the Yankees lose their third baseman and the Red Sox still await the return of theirs.

Once, you might have said youth was the main thing holding the Rays back.

Today, it might be working to their advantage.

For Tampa Bay Rays, youth can be a healthy asset against the Yankees and Red Sox 03/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 11:23am]
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