JEFF BLAIR

New faces, same old Yankees

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail

New York Yankees' Vernon Wells celebrates after scoring a homer off Toronto Blue Jays' Brett Cecil during seventh inning AL baseball action in Toronto on Friday April 19, 2013. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Turns out the emperor has clothes, after all. They might be a little thread bare, and not entirely fashionable. But the New York Yankees aren’t concerned about sexiness. As always, it’s about winning.

Put your hands up if you thought a Yankees team without Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson would be any place other than last place in the American League East. Better yet, hands up if you thought that wouldn’t be the case when the Yankees went out and added Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay at the end of spring training.

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Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of company. Yet here were the Yankees, opening a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre Friday night with the same old Yankees pitching and an offence that led the AL with 22 home runs – 11 of them by first-year Yankees Wells, Overbay, Travis Hafner, Brennan Boesch, Ben Francisco and Kevin Youkilis. As a group, the six went into Friday’s game hitting .288 with 32 runs scored, 13 doubles and 28 runs batted in. More to the point, in a clubhouse that is missing some big personalities, they have filled a vacuum with experience and veteran’s sensibilities instead of callowness and uncertainty.

To many in Toronto, Wells is the guy who had one of the worst contracts in baseball history: a seven-year, $126-million deal that was off-loaded on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim before the 2011 season. Like it was his fault. The boos he received Friday night suggested his status as the face of a failed spending spree by J.P. Ricciardi still overrides the 223 homers, four All-Star Game appearances and three Gold Gloves that he picked up with the Blue Jays.

“Surreal,” was the word he chose to describe coming back to Toronto in a Yankees uniform. Damn, though, he looked comfortable. Must be cool being a Yankee, no?

“It is, because of the tradition that comes with it,” said Wells. “You’re talking about an organization that’s won 27 championships and is as thirsty for 28 as a team that doesn’t have any. It’s about doing your part to help the team win. It’s all anybody talks about.”

You could hear the chuckles throughout baseball when the Yankees acquired Wells from the Angels on March 26 in return for cash considerations and minor-leaguers Exicardo Cayones and Kramer Sneed. The Yankees took on $14-million of $42-million remaining on the deal. Wells hasn’t torn the cover off the ball but he had three homers in his first 32 at bats after hitting 11 in 243 at bats last season. Scouts said Wells had shortened his swing; he’d also drawn eight walks in 56 plate appearances after walking just 16 times last season.

This is a timely return. Ricciardi’s spending spree, which saw Alex Rios receive a contract extension and free agents such as B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett join the club along with trade acquisitions such as Troy Glaus, didn’t pan out. This off-season, Ricciardi’s successor, Alex Anthopoulos, made over the franchise with a 12-play trade with the Florida Marlins and the acquisition of R.A. Dickey.

But Jose Reyes is out with a severe ankle sprain, Dickey has back stiffness, and when Brandon Morrow was life and death to hit 91 miles per hour early on Friday, it wasn’t hard to start thinking the worst. Anybody who says they saw the excitement around this team deflate so quickly is, frankly, lying.

“Alex wanted to change the outlook of his team, but in this game there are so many variables,” Wells said. “Being able to navigate your way around injuries is the biggest thing. Plus, guys need to get comfortable with their roles. This division is the toughest in baseball, everybody’s going to be around at the end of this thing.

“You can play some really good baseball in this division and be successful and still find yourself third,” Wells continued. “That’s the nature of the East. It’s more than just finding great players. Luck and timing is part of it, too.”

By the end of this season, Wells might have singlehandedly proven that latter point.

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