NEW YORK — Derek Jeter is history, Alex Rodriguez is back and a new era starts for the Yankees with the April 6 opener against the Toronto Blue Jays, a season that begins with New York in the unfamiliar role of underdog.
“Life had to go on without Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Yogi and Mantle,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “It just happens.”
For much of last year, it appeared the Yankees were hoping life would go on without Rodriguez, who sued Major League Baseball, the players’ association and New York’s team physician during his drug suspension and then withdrew the actions.
After serving the one-year ban, he’s back on the active roster as his 40th birthday approaches in July, owed $61 million for the final three seasons of his contract.
“I feel like I’m 18 years old with Lou Piniella in Seattle again,” he said.
Rodriguez hasn’t played a full season since 2007 because of the suspension, two hip operations and a variety of lesser injuries. He lost his third base job to Chase Headley and figures to be primarily a designated hitter and backup to Headley and first baseman Mark Teixeira.
A-Rod hit .267 in spring training (12 for 45) with one double, three homers and four RBIs.
“If I was a betting man, I would have bet on him playing well,” Girardi said. “But there’s still that you’ve got to see it after two years of not playing and being 39 and a half.”
And thus far, the sniping between A-Rod and management has dissipated.
“He’s been great. He’s setting a good example for the whole team,” co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner said.
Much has changed for the Yankees since Rodriguez’s last game on Sept. 25, 2013 — the night the Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention.
Just 10 players remain from last year’s 25-man, opening-day roster and just four from the start of 2012, when New York last made the playoffs: Rodriguez, Teixeira, CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner. Teixeira is the only infielder left from opening day last year.
Didi Gregorius takes over at shortstop for Jeter. The Yankees know he can field, but Gregorius has to show he can hit.
“It’s not about the pressure. I’m just here to play the game,” Gregorius said. “I’m not replacing him, because he’s not playing a different position. So for me, just going out there, play my game.”
After a second straight poor season and knee surgery, Sabathia lost his opening-day slot to Masahiro Tanaka. The Japanese right-hander missed most of the second half of last season with a slightly torn elbow ligament, and his velocity was down during spring training.
“Maybe it isn’t the wisest to ask for velocity from me this year,” he said.
Sabathia starts third in a rotation that includes Michael Pineda, newcomer Nathan Eovaldi and Adam Warren.
The end of games will be different, too. David Robertson, who thrived as closer last year following Mariano Rivera’s retirement, left as a free agent, joining the Chicago White Sox.
New York signed Andrew Miller who will, at least for now, team with Dellin Betances to share the closer’s role and is one of three left-handers in the bullpen.
Betances struggled during the exhibition season, finishing with a 5.40 ERA and .281 opponents’ batting average.
“Obviously the spring was rough,” he said.
New York set team records for players (58) and pitchers (33) last year, and four-fifths of the starting rotation spent time on the disabled list. The Yankees scored 633 runs, 13th among the 15 AL teams, and their .307 on-base percentage was ahead of only Seattle.
Gardner (abdomen) and right fielder Carlos Beltran (elbow) return from surgery.
“If we stay healthy, I expect us to be at the top of the division,” Sabathia said. “We’ve definitely got the talent. It’s matter of us staying out on the field.”
Toronto was 83-79 last year — one win fewer than New York, and the Blue Jays have not made the postseason since winning the World Series in 1992-93, the longest absence in the major leagues.
At 24, Drew Hutchison is Toronto’s youngest opening-day starter since Todd Stottlemyre in 1990. The Blue Jays have six rookies on their opening-day roster: center fielder Dalton Pompey, second baseman Devon Travis, starting pitchers Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, and relief pitchers Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna.
Catcher Russell Martin was signed to join a batting order that already included Jose Reyes, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and third baseman Josh Donaldson was acquired from Oakland.
“We may have to rely on a young guy who may not be proven,” Manager John Gibbons said.
By Ronald Blum, AP Sports Writer. AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich and AP freelance writers Mark Didtler, Jeff Odom and Ian Quillen contributed to this report