Rumors of Yankees' demise greatly exaggerated

Mariano Rivera has been perfect in save opportunities leading an unlikely team of Yankees to first place

Story highlights

  • To critics' surprise, The New York Yankees are on top of their game
  • Over $100 million of the team's payroll is on the disabled list
  • The lineup is down to its third-string shortstop and third baseman
  • Despite setbacks, the Yankees are far exceeding expectations
This was supposed to be the year that a baseball dynasty crumbled, that everything finally caught up to the mighty Yankees.
Their superstars, including Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, were old and injured. The offseason came and went without general manager Brian Cashman making a single splashy move -- in fact, for maybe the first time in decades, critics were accusing the deep-pocketed team of being cheap.
Then, there were the up-and-coming rivals in the American League East. The Toronto Blue Jays had added a pair of ace pitchers. The Baltimore Orioles returned a young and dynamic playoff team from the year before. And the Tampa Bay Rays again were supposed to have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.
So the team that serenades fans with Sinatra after home games -- "King of the hill! Top of the heap!" -- was projected to finish near the bottom of the standings by many experts. And that was before the injuries started to mount during the first month and a half of the season.
"I know why everyone on the outside said what this team was and where we were going to be," said outfielder Vernon Wells, "but here were are."
Here, for the Yankees, is their customary spot at the top of the division standings, owners of one of the better records in baseball -- and, quite possibly, the best story in the sport through the first two months of the season, too.
The Yankees are not supposed to be cuddly underdogs, not when they've reached every postseason but one since 1995, not with those 27 world championships in their history, not with the money-minting TV network called YES helping fund a huge payroll each year.
But it's hard not to look at this roster and wonder how the Yankees -- at 28-18 through Wednesday's games -- are doing it.
This is a team with more than $100 million of payroll on the disabled list, which according to The New York Times, was $23,041 an hour spent on injured players. This is a team down to its third-string shortstop and third baseman, putting names in the lineup that even diehard fans have to plug into Google.
That lineup is not completely devoid of its star-power, of course.
Robinson Cano, the All-Star second baseman, is second in the AL with 13 home runs and is among the leaders with 33 RBI. The pitching staff still includes stalwarts such as CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda -- and, of course, future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera is perfect in save opportunities.
Still, everywhere you look in this lineup, you see players who are exceeding expectations. To wit:
-- Lyle Overbay, the first baseman who the Red Sox cut at the end of spring training, has seven homers and 25 RBI filling in for the injured Teixeira -- and a penchant for coming up with the big hit. Overbay had played on four teams in the past two seasons, and when the Red Sox let him go, he wondered if retirement was soon to follow.
"You kind of dream about this," he said, "but I don't know how realistic it would be."
-- Travis Hafner, the 35-year-old designated hitter signed for a bargain-basement $2 million, has eight homers and 24 RBI. Considered a platoon player when the season started, the injury-afflicted Hafner -- who appeared in more than 100 games a season just once since 2008 -- is now regularly batting cleanup.
"We're building chemistry really well and everyone on the team gets along well and we play really well as a team," Hafner said. "We'd like to keep that going."
-- David Adams, just one of several stopgap players the Yankees have used on the left side of their infield, has two home runs in the past week. Not only are the Yankees playing without their starting shortstop (Jeter) and third baseman (Rodriguez), but they are missing replacements Kevin Youkilis and Eduardo Nunez.
-- And then there is Vernon Wells, who might be the biggest surprise of them all. Wells had batted just .222 the past two seasons for the Angels, reaching base just 26 of the time. The Yankees' move to acquire him in the offseason was ridiculed around the sport.
"Yankees' grab at $126M bust Vernon Wells makes little sense, a sign of desperation," was the headline on Yahoo! Sports.
Wells already has 10 home runs -- just one shy of his entire total from last season -- and has an .847 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) that is among the best in his career. He might be the comeback player of the year, and he's enjoying the ride, to say the least.
"We have young guys who are trying to make a name for themselves, and we have old guys who are trying to prove that they can still play at this level," Wells said. "It's been a good mix, and we have a good time. We're a fun and a close group.
"That's the definition of a team: Everyone stepping up. We've had so many different guys who have come through for this ball club. We have a good cast of characters that have come up big for us at different moments. It's been fun to watch guys step into the spotlight and take full advantage of it."
Can they keep it up? Baseball history has show that it is nearly impossible for teams to overachieve over the course of a 162-game season. Everything tends to even out in baseball.
But the Yankees know that reinforcements are coming. Outfielder Curtis Granderson, who missed the first month and a half with a broken wrist, is back. Teixeira and Jeter are expected to return this summer, while no one is sure when (or if) the controversial A-Rod will take the field again.
The key, as always, will be the pitching.
Sabathia, the big lefty, has some concerned that he has lost his fastball, with Kuroda (38) and Andy Pettitte (40) are at an age when pitchers tend to breakdown. Pettitte recently joined the long list of players on the disabled list with a pulled muscle in his back.
For now, though, the Yankees are doing something they don't usually do. They're overachieving.
"I still think we have a lot of really good players -- maybe not the names we're used to having here, but guys who have had big years," manager Joe Girardi said. "This group has worked really hard.
"As a manager and a coaching staff, we appreciate what they're doing. We also applaud them because they're playing extremely well, and it seems to be a different guy every night finding a way to get it done for us. It's been a good month and a half, but we know we have a long way to go."