Heading into Monday's doubleheader in Cleveland, the New York Yankees sat at 23-13, atop the American League East and winners of five consecutive games.
As Yankees fans extol the virtues of general manager Brian Cashman's offseason moves and the managing performance of Joe Girardi, the reality of the 2013 Yankees revolves around an expensive, veteran team surviving and thriving while their injured, expensive veterans heal and return for the bulk of the season.
From Chris Nelson to Vernon Wells to Lyle Overbay to today's Game 2 starter, Vidal Nuno, these Yankees are actually underdogs, plowing their way through baseball without apparent regard for their lack of collective talent.
Vernon Wells: 2011: OBP .248 2012: OBP .279; 2013: OBP .343...last yr Wells entire year 77g 11 HR 29 RBI...this year 34g 9 HR 20 RBI #Wells— JIM BOWDEN (@JimBowdenESPNxm) May 13, 2013
Of course, the talent isn't far from returning.
Curtis Granderson could be back this week (via NJ.com), and Joba Chamberlain and Kevin Youkilis are probably slated to contribute again later this month. June isn't an outlandish timetable for Mark Teixeira and Michael Pineda, and by the time the All-Star Game invades New York, two former regulars of the Midsummer Classic, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, could be nearing rehab games and return dates.
While the optimist projects how good the team could be when the reinforcements arrive, the pessimist cites chemistry and not fear of ruining the run this particular 25-man roster is on early in 2013.
What if the regular yankees heal, return and it turns out the replacements were better?— donna p (@dp57) May 12, 2013
To be honest, defining chemistry and momentum is an arduous task. Does wining beget chemistry or does chemistry lead to a winning group?
With these Yankees, it's more likely that a winning culture feeds the beast. From ownership to the front office to Joe Girardi to the leaders on the field like C.C Sabathia, Mariano Rivera and Robinson Cano, there is a sense of accountability and confidence that runs through the clubhouse. The fact that it permeates through new, less talented players isn't a coincidence.
That being said, the Yankees need their injured players to return. As the weeks and months go on, the premise of playing .650 or better baseball with Ichiro Suzuki batting fifth, Ben Francisco garnering regular at-bats and Vidal Nuno on the mound is too much to ask of any roster.
Unlike football, basketball and hockey, baseball is an individual sport wrapped up in a team game.
Ultimately, the Yankees are doing well because the replacements, Overbay in particular, are doing a decent impersonation of the All-Stars they are replacing. While 37 games isn't quite a tiny sample size, it's not close to one that should be counted on to continue.
The beauty of having players like Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter isn't their talent on a given day, but rather their consistent ability, day after day, for the grind of a 162-game season.
Despite the team's success thus far, troublesome signs have formed beneath the surface.
Only three teams in the sport have a lower collective OPS against left-handed pitching. At .638, the Yankees effectively run out an entire lineup of Chris Parmelle's when the opposing manager starts a left-handed pitcher.
Despite their age and question marks moving forward, Derek Jeter (.911) and Alex Rodriguez (.944) are two of the best hitters against lefties in the history of baseball.
Although Vernon Wells has played well enough to stay in the lineup when Curtis Granderson returns, taking away playing time from Ichiro Suzuki in favor of Granderson will make the lineup much, much more powerful.
At his best, Granderson is a 150-200 point improvement in slugging percentage from Ichiro. For as great of a hitter as Ichiro once was, his anemic .307 OBP doesn't cover up his lack of pop any longer.
If Michael Pineda can resurface as the pitcher he was for the Mariners in 2011, New York can rid themselves of the question marks that surround David Phelps and Ivan Nova when one takes the mound every fifth day.
Expect there to be grumblings about chemistry or momentum if the Yankees lose a few games when the projected lineup is back together.
Ignore the noise.
While we'll probably never get a chance to know, the ceiling for the current group can't touch the 90 wins that are likely necessary for a postseason berth in the American League East.
Which former star do the Yankees need back most?
The real story shouldn't be about what the replacements could do with a full season, but rather commending them on giving the stars a chance to rejoin a winning team on a path back to October.
Lyle Overbay, Chris Nelson and Jason Nix shouldn't play big roles in August and September for a postseason bound club, but their contributions early on could be remembered as invaluable if Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez return to carry the load.