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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Veteran Yankees will still be a force

Perennial power will once again be in mix in loaded American League East

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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

TAMPA, Fla. -- So this must be where the Yankees train.

You can tell from all those handicapped spaces in the parking lot outside Steinbrenner Field and the Ben Gay tubes lined up in the trainer's room. You can tell from the relatively short workout schedule Thursday, presumably so that the players could depart in time to take their Valentines out for the early bird special at Golden Corral.

That's the storyline here, right? The Yanks are old. Their clubhouse is the anti-anti-aging clinic. Their team colors are navy blue, white and a touch of gray.

How are they going to even make it through a full 162-game schedule, let alone win the loaded American League East?

Well, it can admittedly be fun to joke about a Yankees roster with a decidedly ancient average age nearing 33. But let's not jump to any ridiculous conclusions here. This team is still very much going to be a factor, if not a force.

This is a 95-win club from a year ago that certainly lost a ton of prominent power from its lineup when Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez walked out the door. But the Yanks nonetheless retain an experienced, able rotation, a balanced offensive attack and one of the best bullpens in the sport.

The Yankees, as currently constructed, are set up to win their fair share of ballgames.

"They, without question, have the means to put a championship team on the field," one pro scout said. "They are the New York Yankees."

Amen to that.

With that said, the pointed pokes at the Bronx Bombers' age issues do have merit. Because while this Major League roster, if kept intact, is certainly capable of elite output, it is fair to wonder if there is enough depth in the upper levels of the farm system to keep the Yanks afloat if or when the injury bug bites.

That's the issue here, in the wake of a winter that was rather un-Yankee-like. Part of the more austere approach to roster construction that Brian Cashman and Co. have taken on involves a reliance on the homegrown commodities, and so it is worth wondering whether those commodities will impact the immediate that is the 2013 season.

By now, you know the concerns at hand here: CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are all coming off surgery, with Rodriguez's off-field issues well-documented and his on-field return not anticipated until the second half, at the earliest.

Furthermore, Mark Teixeira has shown signs of decline and has even admitted as much, and Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner are oft-injured stopgaps. Ichiro Suzuki is 39, Hiroki Kuroda is 38, Andy Pettitte is 40. These guys can't go on forever, you know. And so comes the conclusion from many a scribe that the Yankees are perhaps more vulnerable than they've been in decades.

How much merit is there to that notion? Well, that depends on where or when the possible breakdowns arrive and how the Yanks go about addressing them.

Start with that rotation, where depth could emerge as an issue. A year ago, New York's top two pitching prospects were Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances. But Banuelos blew out his elbow and Betances pitched his way into a demotion to Double-A, where he continued to struggle. Elbow issues also forced an early shutdown for 20-year-old Jose Campos, an acquisition from the Mariners in the Jesus Montero trade. And then, of course, there was the key piece in that trade, Michael Pineda, who missed the entire season with a tear in his shoulder.

Pineda has climbed back on the mound at Yankees camp and, in the best case of best-case scenarios, could be ready to rejoin the club in May or June. But that's barring any setbacks, and shoulder issues of this nature are particularly prickly in terms of recovery time.

"He's got youth on his side, and he doesn't have a ton of innings on that arm," manager Joe Girardi said of Pineda. "But time will tell."

Time will also tell how well the left side of the infield -- Jeter and Youkilis -- performs at such an advanced age. The Yankees' cupboard is particularly bare at those two spots, which is why the club devoted $12 million to Youkilis. That's $12 million that, you could argue, would have been better-spent on retaining Martin behind the dish, but the A-Rod injury forced the Yanks' hand on the matter.

The Yankees have a strong defender in Austin Romine to potentially take over behind the plate as soon as Opening Day. They have some versatile young infielders in David Adams and Corban Joseph to plug in, should needs arise.

But in general, most of the club's top position player prospects -- specifically, catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielders Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams -- are in the lower levels of the system.

"The reason they may lack depth at Triple-A is more a function of problems they have had identifying Minor League free agents and waiver claims," said one front-office executive with knowledge of the Yanks' system. "Depth is an issue in the very short run, but the talent they have coming up in the system is actually surprisingly good."

The word "surprising" is appropriate here not as a knock on amateur scouting director Damon Oppenheimer and his crew, but simply as a product of the Yankees' successes at the Major League level.

"The Yankees draft at the very back of the first round every year -- assuming they don't lose the pick for signing a free agent," the exec explained. "It's impossible to draft a lot of talent with later and limited picks."

So give credit to the Yanks for stocking a system that is well-regarded in the industry.

And perhaps that's the primary point to be made here. Because while the prime pieces in that farm system might not be ready to help out immediately, they could certainly be flipped for impact talent at or before the Trade Deadline. That gives the Yankees the flexibility to retool as 2013 unfolds.

"You use that first-third of the season, through Memorial Day, to assess what you've done," assistant GM Billy Eppler said. "Then you use June and July to assess things you didn't plan, and you use that last third to make that final push and run into the postseason.

"We're pretty optimistic about how things can play out. We feel there's still some presence in our lineup that can scare an opposing pitcher. I think we'll have one of the better defensive outfields in the game. When you have guys that can run and steal bases and do those things, you have other ways of scoring runs."

Like the scout said, they're the Yankees. They generally find a way and have, in fact, for 20 consecutive seasons in which they've played no worse than .540 ball.

There is vulnerability -- to age and to lame jokes -- but there is also some degree of flexibility. I, for one, am not definitively chalking the Yanks up as a championship team, but I'm definitely not writing them off, either.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. MLB.com reporter Jonathan Mayo contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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