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3/24/2013 3:03 P.M. ET

Jeter's setback another hit in Yankees' tough spring

Club will open season with key players on disabled list rather than playing

TAMPA, Fla. -- If Derek Jeter was almost any other player, we'd have huge questions about his ability to continue to play at the level we've come to expect from him. Never mind when he'll be back at shortstop for the Yankees. What will he look like when he returns? Is he still capable of greatness?

After all, he's 38 years old and attempting to come back from a gruesome ankle injury. At the moment, he doesn't seem comfortable doing the simplest things. For instance, running from home to first.

He's probably a long way from being able to play short for a full nine innings, much less for a string of nine-inning games. The Yankees are still cautiously confident he'll return in April, but that's just a guess.

Since the moment we saw him lying on the ground last October at Yankee Stadium, we've all assumed he'd fly through his rehabilitation. As Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said the other day, Jeter has always been superman in terms of durability and toughness.

Bumps and bruises were a nuisance. He didn't spend much time in the training room, and even less time discussing whatever was bothering him. He simply wanted his name written on the lineup card and to be evaluated by how he played.

Even if he was completely healthy, even if he'd done all the things he normally does to prepare for a season, there would be legitimate questions about his ability to continue to produce at a high level.

One spring late in his career, Randy Johnson chided reporters for asking about his age.

"If you guys keep writing that I'm washed up, one of these years you'll be right," he said.

Indeed, even the greatest players eventually reach the end of the line, and that's what we don't know about Jeter. It's just that for the first time he seems vulnerable in a way he never did before.

He probably couldn't save the Yankees at this point. With Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Jeter all sidelined, the Yankees will open the season with $84 million of their $210-million payroll on the disabled list. That $84 million is higher than the total payroll of 15 teams in 2012.

They're relatively confident what they're going to get from second baseman Robinson Cano and center fielder Brett Gardner. Every other spot, including right field (Ichiro Suzuki) and third base (Kevin Youkilis), is a question mark.

As for left field (Brennan Boesch), first base (Juan Rivera), designated hitter (Travis Hafner), shortstop (Eduardo Nunez) and catcher (Francisco Cervelli), Cashman will be looking for upgrades as teams make their final cuts.

Yes, the Yankees will be looking for help among the castoffs. After two decades when they seemed virtually bullet-proof to the kinds of things that brought other franchises to their knees, the Yankees have gotten bad news.

If they were any other franchise, they'd be penciled in for last place. But they've still got a very good rotation and a potentially excellent bullpen. They also have a chance of getting Granderson, Teixeira, Jeter and Rodriguez back at some point this season.

There's also an aura about them, and that's probably something easy to oversell. There's still a feeling around baseball that the Yankees will stay close and that Cashman will do something to shore up the lineup.

Still, at the end of a nightmarish few weeks, it's Jeter who is the center of attention in these final days of Spring Training. His presence in the lineup would provide comfort to a franchise that could use some right now.

Instead, he may be a reminder that nothing lasts forever, that even the great ones have an expiration date. The Yankees won't have Mariano Rivera after this season and understand that Jeter and Andy Pettitte are nearing the end.

Once upon a time, the Yankees hoped that Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera would provide a bridge to the next generation of greatness. Instead, they're a reminder of how extraordinary this run has been. And that nothing last forever.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.