NEW YORK -- Robinson Cano claimed he doesn't care where he hits in the lineup, when asked Friday about how manager Joe Girardi waited until Opening Day at Yankee Stadium to roll out a batting order that will feature Cano batting cleanup against right-handers rather than Alex Rodriguez.
But Girardi's move was another of those little reminders -- like Derek Jeter talking about how he's known Jorge Posada for 20 years, and the sight of the just-retired Posada throwing out the first pitch Friday and getting a hug from 42-year-old Mariano Rivera -- that the New York Yankees are going to be thought of as Cano's team someday. Soon.
It was the sort of looking-ahead move that felt appropriate on the first home date of the new season, and Posada seemed to get the significance too when he went into the Yankees clubhouse and saw that Cano had, without asking, been assigned his old corner locker, a place of honor.
"Jorge told me, 'Now you've got to make me proud,'" Cano said with a laugh.
Once the game began, the 36-year-old Rodriguez shook off his slow start at the plate this season and finally stirred to life in the Yankees' 5-0 win over the Los Angeles Angels. His 3-for-4 day included his first homer and RBI of the Yanks' seven-game-old season.
Cano, also off to a sluggish start at .226, was only a quiet 1-for-3, with a single, on a beautiful blue-sky day at the Stadium. And the sellout crowd was already in midseason form, giving Posada a warm ovaton and later shouting, "No! No! No!" when two marriage proposals flashed on the huge center field scoreboard between innings.
Girardi said before the game that flipflopping A-Rod and Cano in the order wasn't about how either player has begun the season.
What he didn't say is the move is about who Cano and A-Rod are at this stage of their respective careers.
"If you think that [flipflopping spots with Cano] is a story, wait until I take over Jeter's [leadoff] spot -- that'll be a real story," Rodriguez joked, insisting that the move up to the No. 3 slot was fine with him.
"Whatever the manager decides, I'm fine with that," Cano said.
Rodriguez is smart enough to know this is how it has gone in baseball forever. Stars come and stars go, but the line always moves.
Like Albert Pujols, now in his first season with the Los Angeles Angels, Rodriguez used to be the undisputed top dogs of baseball. And both of them are still frightening on most days, as A-Rod reminded everyone with that homer, a blast over the 408-foot sign in straightaway center that moved him into a tie with Ken Griffey Jr. for fifth place on the all-time home run list, with 630.
(You should've seen Jeter's expression when he was asked at his pregame news conference if he was "happy" to see Pujols in the American League. "Yeah, our pitching staff is doing backflips in the clubhouse. They're real excited about him coming over," Jeter shot back, his face deadpan as everyone around him burst into laughter.)
Cano is already the Yankees' best all-around player. Girardi said he wanted to keep Cano hitting fourth to separate him and fellow left-hander Curtis Granderson, the Yanks' No. 2 hitter against right-handed starters. The thought is that'll make matching up against the Yankees more difficult for teams with two left-handed pitchers in the bullpen, like the Angels have.
But don't be surprised if Cano soon slides into the cleanup slot full-time, never to leave. When the day comes, Girardi will again say something to play it down -- he just likes the way it looks, it's just a gut feeling, or we're going to go that way "for now." Whatever.
That's a lot easier than saying it's time for Cano, who gained experience in the cleanup spot last season when Rodriguez was often hurt and hit a career-low 16 home runs, to be seen more as The Guy around here.
Cano has the best future of any Yankees everyday player. Hard as it is to believe, he's 30 now himself. And it's about time he started taking on an even bigger share of the ownership of this team, now that Posada is gone and Jeter and A-Rod are in their late 30s, and even Mark Teixeira is 32.
Cano knows it. And A-Rod does too.
Cano has always been one of A-Rod's favorites on the team, someone he has always taken under his wing like a little brother. Even a few years ago, Rodriguez was already talking to Cano about situational hitting -- how Cano's approach at the plate should change now that he's expected to be a big RBI producer, and not the kid who was lucky enough to break in with the most popular team in the majors, hanging back in the shade of all the stars the Yanks already had.
"A-Rod and I still do a lot of extra work before games," Cano said. "I do all I can do to take advantage of him, get his advice, see what's made him so successful for so long."
It's the way it's always been. Stars come and stars go in baseball. But the line always moves. Cano isn't just the Yankees' new cleanup hitter against right-handers. Friday's home opener was just another reminder that he's moved on-deck for another milestone. It won't be long before we're unequivocally calling the Yankees Robby Cano's team.