If Bombers can stay healthy, look out below

If Bombers can stay healthy, look out below

TAMPA, Fla. -- Discussing the health of his roster as the Yankees approach Opening Day, Joe Girardi rapped his knuckles on a table for luck. Less than 30 minutes later, discussing the very same topic in the very same chair, Alex Rodriguez followed suit.

The Yankees have the game's highest payroll, a loaded offense and a pitching staff that they believe is better than the one that suffered a first-round defeat last October. But they'll need to keep veteran stars like Rodriguez healthy to reach their ultimate goal of a 28th World Series championship.

"At this point in my career, you focus how my body feels, how I'm reacting, how I'm seeing the baseball," Rodriguez said. "Overall, I feel very good and I'm happy with the way I feel, and happy with the way the team's played. And we're ready to roll."

The Yankees won 97 games and finished first in the American League East before the Tigers knocked them off last October, and they understand they'll have their work cut out for them again to repeat in a stacked division.

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"It's probably as tough as it's been," Derek Jeter said. "Our league is very, very challenging for all the teams, regardless of what division you're in now. I think now people can stop just talking about the AL East. I think the American League as a whole is difficult."

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman tried to prepare his club for the battles ahead by shattering an uncharacteristically quiet Bronx winter on the evening of Jan. 14, as the team acquired right-handers Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda.

Kuroda will slide behind ace CC Sabathia in the rotation, and the Yankees plan to have him starting their second game against the Rays at Tropicana Field.

"I'm excited for us," Sabathia said. "If we stay healthy and pitch the way we're supposed to, we're going to be right back in the position we want to be in. We have a great clubhouse and great chemistry on this team, so it's fun to be a part of it. Hopefully we can put it all together and make a good run."

The ripple effect of Pineda pointing to a spot behind his right shoulder last week is that the prized 23-year-old will begin the season on the disabled list. The Yankees are encouraged that they have depth to cover up the issue.

"Eventually Pineda is going to come back," Girardi said. "It gives us some time to sort things out. Things most of the time have a way of working themselves out."

Veteran Freddy Garcia will provide a steady option as the No. 5 starter, while Phil Hughes has had a strong spring and Ivan Nova believes he can improve upon a 16-win breakout campaign.

"I think he's going to have a great year; that's my personal opinion," catcher Russell Martin said of Nova. "He went above expectations last year with what he did."

The rotation competition may just be in its opening stages, as Pineda will eventually need a spot and the Yankees shook up camp by inking 39-year-old veteran Andy Pettitte to a Minor League deal for a comeback attempt, with the lefty eyeing a May return.

"As a player in New York, when aren't you in a competition?" Girardi said. "If you don't do well for a little period of time, a lot of times there are changes made. It might be more evident that there is something looming out there."

On the offensive side, there are no major shakeups in New York's lineup, though the Yankees will cross their fingers that cleanup hitter Rodriguez will play more than the 99 games he did last season in what he called his "most frustrating" campaign, and that leadoff hitter Jeter can avoid the disabled list, as well.

Curtis Granderson's impact bat is a threatening fit in the No. 2 spot, and Robinson Cano steps into a full-time assignment as the third hitter, where he completed last season and resided for the playoffs. Mark Teixeira will move to the No. 5 spot as he hopes to increase his productivity against right-handed pitching.

"Here, anywhere you hit, there's a lot of responsibility," Cano said. "Here, you've always got to produce. You've got such a great lineup, great hitters, so anywhere you hit, you're going to have to produce."

Nick Swisher revamped his body by following a training regimen with football players in what could be a contract year for the outspoken right fielder, and the Yankees imported veteran Raul Ibanez to serve as their designated hitter against right-handed pitching, appearing to round into form after a slow spring.

Martin and Gold Glove-caliber left fielder Brett Gardner put the finishing touches on a lineup that finished second in the Majors with 867 runs scored last year, and Girardi said there is no reason to expect a dropoff.

"I like our offense," Girardi said. "I'm pretty pleased with the way guys are swinging the bat. I think you can assume that you're going to get close to the same performance."

The Yankees anticipate carrying a 12-man pitching staff to begin the season, and their bullpen is again a strength, with David Robertson hoping to repeat a terrific 2011 campaign and former closer Rafael Soriano returning for his second year in pinstripes.

But as the standing ovations all spring at George M. Steinbrenner Field indicated, there is good reason to pay more attention to every darting cutter thrown this year by 42-year-old closer Mariano Rivera.

The all-time saves leader looked as sharp as ever all spring, once again pitching without permitting an earned run until Monday's exhibition against the Marlins, but his biggest shockwaves were sent by strong hints that the 2012 campaign will be his final one wearing a Yankees uniform.

Rivera's status in franchise lore is ironclad, of course, but the Yankees would love to send him off with a sixth championship ring. As always, from Day 1 of Spring Training forward, that's their goal.

"One thing you've heard me say before, we always have an opportunity to win," Jeter said.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.