Jeter's ankle could leave Yankees in shackles

If rehabbing shortstop doesn't come back strong, they won't have leg to stand on

For 17 seasons, Derek Jeter has been the best reason to keep believing in baseball.

His throwback approach has yielded daily excellence in the middle of the Yankees infield. He has kept life simple off the field, and that never seems to be a bad idea. He's heading into the biggest challenge of his career, and even Red Sox fans will have a hard time rooting against him.

Or not.

One of two things is going to happen this season: Jeter proves himself to be a medical marvel, recovering from a broken/trashed ankle at 38 to be a reasonable facsimile of the guy who hit .316 last season or the Yankees unravel around the shell of their captain.

While Yankees talk has revolved around Alex Rodriguez and supporting actors such as Rafael Soriano and Nick Swisher this offseason, the story that matters the most is Jeter's recovery. The Yankees are vulnerable even with Jeter at his best, but if the Yankees have to give Eduardo Nunez or someone else a lot of time at shortstop, they could do something they haven't since 1990 — finish in last place.

That might sound dramatic but it really isn't, not when you consider the stacked nature of the American League East.

The Blue Jays are a popular choice to win a pennant after adding NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey along with Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, among others, and the Orioles are coming off a 93-victory season. The Rays traded James Shields but still have a wealth of pitching, and the Red Sox hope strong clubhouse guys such as Ryan Dempster, David Ross, Jonny Gomes and Mike Napoli can get them turned in the right direction.

It wasn't a coincidence that the Yankees had outscored the Orioles and Tigers 20-15 when Jeter played and then got pounded 14-2 after his ankle fractured in the 12th inning of the ALCS opener. The difference wasn't all Jeter, of course. But the Yankees' success starts with him, and no one bears a closer look this spring than Jeter.

Here are some of the other issues I'm eager to explore this spring:

Is Tyler Flowers ready to catch everyday for a contender? The White Sox let A.J. Pierzynski walk after eight seasons, feeling it was now-or-never for the 27-year-old Flowers. He is reflecting that confidence heading into spring training but needs a strong showing in Glendale, Ariz., to prepare for the full ride. The health of 2012 opening day starter John Danks is another major question in Rick Hahn's first year as general manager.

Can Javier Baez light up Arizona? The 20-year-old Cubs shortstop has played only 85 games in the minors but built huge expectations for himself as a hitter. He could bring a Bryce Harper-like impact to a lineup that already has under-25 regulars in Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo and could allay concerns about his readiness for a late-season promotion. To temper expectations, consider what Harper hit last spring: .286 with no home runs and 11 strikeouts in 28 at-bats.

Is John Gibbons the right guy to manage a powerhouse Blue Jays team? In 2008, the Blue Jays were 35-39 when J.P. Ricciardi fired Gibbons and gave Cito Gaston a shot at a second stint. They went 51-37 after the job change, not exactly the best reflection on Gibbons. Yet fourth-year GM Alex Anthopoulos shocked everyone when he hired Gibbons after an extensive managerial search — a move that was even more shocking considering it came a week after the Marlins' blockbuster trade that made the Blue Jays an AL favorite.

Can Tim Lincecum get his groove back? It's astonishing that the Giants won a World Series with the two-time Cy Young Award winner pitching out of the bullpen. They're primed to make a serious run at a third NL pennant in four years behind Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, but Lincecum could be the guy who gets them over the top.

Will Hiro Nakajima be more like Yoenis Cespedes or Tsuyoshi Nishioka? Bill Smith's investment in Nishioka contributed to his unsuccessful tenure as the Twins' general manager, but Billy Beane has had better luck importing international talent. The A's think they have a real shot to repeat in the AL West, which is why Beane traded for Jed Lowrie to cover the bet he made on Nakajima, a career .310 hitter with the Seibu Lions.

Will anyone care that the Marlins have a deep collection of young talent? Miami fans want a new owner, but Jeffrey Loria says he's not interested in selling to anyone, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush. It will be interesting to see if the Marlins can outdraw the Astros, Indians and Rays next year. The team is selling its future, which includes 20-year-old right-hander Jose Fernandez and center fielders Jake Marisnick and Christian Yelich, among others.

Will Joe Benson step up? The Twins outfielder from Joliet Catholic is the major's biggest sleeper. He's a potential five-tool guy but somehow hit .202 between four levels last year. The trades of Ben Revere and Denard Span give the 24-year-old a second chance.

Will the Dodgers play like a $213 million team? The Mark Walter/Magic Johnson/Gug-

genheim Partners ownership, behind club President Stan Kasten, has made all the right moves off the field. But the signing of Zack Greinke and the midseason trades for Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford don't guarantee a playoff spot. Beckett and Ramirez need strong springs (and Ramirez is likely to spend much of his as a designated hitter for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic).

Bruce Rondon, man or myth? The 22-year-old Tigers prospect has hit 103 mph and held opponents to a .189 batting average over five minor league seasons. He's the reason Dave Dombrowski said no thanks to signing Rafael Soriano this offseason. While Phil Coke may open the season as the closer, the onus long term is on Rondon to nail down saves for Justin Verlander and others in one of baseball's deepest rotations.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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