Yankees have element of surprise

Heading into the 2013 season, the New York Yankees have a rare opportunity, one they haven't had for a full generation.

For the first time since 1994, the Yankees could pleasantly surprise their fans.

This is no small accomplishment, considering that since 1995, when the Yankees started their run of 13 straight playoff appearances, five World Series championships and 17 of 18 Octobers with meaningful baseball, such a modest goal as merely making the playoffs was a given.

This year, not so fast.

While at least one of their American League East rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays, appears to have vastly improved in the offseason and the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays figure to be just as good as they were last year, it is difficult to find an area in which the 2013 Yankees will be better than the 2012 version.

Unless you think Kevin Youkilis is a better player than even the current version of Alex Rodriguez, a case can be made that they're not even as good.

In fact, there is a chance, however remote, that the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, which have spent the past decade taking turns serving as the bully of the AL East, could find themselves looking up at the three younger, more athletic and no doubt hungrier teams in their division.

Yes, I know the team has tried to change the conversation this winter, from the old mission statement -- "If we don't win it all, the season's a failure" -- to the more modest "Hey, we won 95 games last year."

It used to be that those first 162 were just a warm-up act for the main event. Now the Yankees would like you to believe that is the whole show and be satisfied with it.

It's too late for that. A fan base that has become accustomed to victory parades is hardly going to be happy with a consolation prize.

But this year, it seems as if that is what the Yankees are preparing you for, a period of transition other teams routinely go through but the Yankees have been both good enough and, yes, lucky enough to avoid for the past 20 years.

That is why these Yankees have this rare opportunity to actually give their fans a pleasant surprise by being better than they appear to be.

The nucleus is still solid. Robinson Cano remains the best all-around player on the team and one of the best in the game; Derek Jeter, assuming his recovery from a broken ankle proceeds as expected, it still a Hall of Fame shortstop; and until proven otherwise, Mariano Rivera should once again set the standard by which all closers are measured.

But the supporting cast is certainly diminished. The loss of Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones, Eric Chavez and, for half a season at least, Alex Rodriguez pares 112 home runs off the Yankees' league-leading total of 245, and it is puzzling to determine how they will be replaced.

Curtis Granderson, who led the team with 43 home runs in 2012, is back for one more season, but his production diminished last season even as his power numbers went up, mainly because he regressed against left-handed pitching.

And Mark Teixeira, who struggled through an injury-and-illness plagued year, has already made a pre-emptive strike in the media, telling The Wall Street Journal he expected his production to wane as he gets older. Tex will turn 33 in April.

Certainly it will be a different Yankees offense this year, more reliant on the speed and ability of Brett Gardner, who missed almost all of last season, and Ichiro Suzuki, a Yankee for just two months in 2012, to get on base and create runs without the long ball, a serious deficiency in the Yankees' game last year and a weakness that has cost them dearly in two consecutive postseasons.

While the pitching rotation returns intact, there's no getting around the fact that two of the starters, Andy Pettitte (41 in June) and Hiroki Kuroda (38 on Sunday), are in their twilight and that the ace, CC Sabathia, is coming off elbow cleanup surgery and, at 32, isn't a fresh-faced kid anymore.

Even the incomparable Rivera will be asked to do something no pitcher in the history of baseball has ever been able to do successfully: serve as the everyday closer at the age of 43. Since Rivera has already done quite a few things no player has ever been able to do, there is reason to believe he can do this too. But like everything else in baseball, it's hardly a given.

That is why this season has the feeling of a bridge year, one in which the team tries to get by in hopes that some of its promising kids will develop in time for 2014, when owner Hal Steinbrenner's edict to cut payroll to $189 million is sure to hamper GM Brian Cashman's ability to do much more than re-sign Cano to what is sure to be a monster deal.

That is what makes this Yankees season different not from all others but from all that we have known since the manager was a bright young guy named William Nathaniel Showalter and the word steroids had hardly entered the game's lexicon.

Since 1996, wild success every season was not only anticipated but came to be expected. After a while, even the greatest Yankees success no longer brought joy, but merely relief.

That's what happens when the philosophy is win it all or die. There's no real opportunity to be pleasantly surprised, but plenty of chances to be bitterly disappointed.

Not this year.

This year, the Yankees are more likely to be underrated than overrated, more likely to be in the fight of their lives than on a stroll in the park.

And if they somehow manage to overperform and win it all?

Well, that might feel like 1996 all over again, a feeling not too many of us remember and one that clearly far too many of us have forgotten.

PREDICTION: The Orioles win the division, and the Yankees ultimately win out in a three-way battle for the wild card with Tampa Bay and Toronto.