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After Rafael Soriano declined an option to return, the Yankees had little choice but to count on Rivera handling the closer role for another season, even though he tore up a knee shagging flies in batting practice less than a year ago.

Rivera, like many of his teammates, has yet to take part in an actual spring training game.

A word of warning to Yankees fans: If you’re coming to Florida anytime soon, count on paying full price to watch a bunch of guys who likely will be in Triple-A this season. I caught the Bombers a couple of times in the past week and barely even recognized `em. Most of the important work is going on in Tampa, where simulated games and extended batting practices are the order of the day.

Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner insisted he’s excited about his team.

Maybe he’s just in a state of denial.

“I think we’ve got a good mix of young players and veterans,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk about our age, but I like having those veterans. I like the age. I like the experience, and I think it’s great for the young players to have that around.”

If only there were some actual young players for all that experience to rub off on.

With Rodriguez’s status in doubt, the Yankees picked up 33-year-old Kevin Youkilis to take over at third base and 35-year-old Travis Hafner to handle the designated hitter duties. That passes for a youth movement in New York.

“When I think about some of the age on our club, you might have to manage a little bit different than you might with a younger club,” skipper Joe Girardi acknowledged. “You might have to give a day off here and there more than you would if you had a bunch of 25-year-olds. But in saying that, I know we have a lot of guys that are extremely experienced, understand what it’s like to play in this division, understand what it’s like to play in New York because of their experience, and I like that.

“If we play up to our capabilities,” he added, “I believe we’re a very good team.”

They’d better be. Sure, it’s hard to see the Baltimore Orioles duplicating a remarkable season that landed them a wild-card spot in the playoffs. But the Toronto Blue Jays made huge improvements, thanks to the fire sale in Miami, and the remarkable Tampa Bay Rays _ who have no money but keep churning out competitive teams _ look poised to return in October.

Who knows? Maybe the Boston Red Sox will actually show up now that their plan to get rid of Bobby Valentine _ play as poorly as possible so he’ll get fired _ worked out better than anyone could have envisioned.

Cervelli shrugged off any suggestion that these Yankees are destined to fall back in the standings after winning the division 13 of the last 17 years, and missing the playoffs only once since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

“Every year, it’s the same thing,” the catcher said. “People have opinions. But you know what? When the season starts, these guys know what they’ve got to do. We’re always going to be in (contention).”

The top of the Yankees‘ Web site declares, “A Timeless Legacy.”

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