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Falling On Hard Times minance could be at an end

Derek Jeter has decided to stop answering questions about his surgically repaired ankle, tired of the scrutiny, tired of saying he feels fine (even when he doesn’t). Heading to the disabled list, Jeter won’t be at shortstop on Opening Day. It’s another reason to believe the Yankees are heading toward a long, hot summer, maybe even a miserable one.

The Bombers are dissolving in an insidious 1965-like decline — that’s the opinion of most baseball executives this spring. Forget about matching last year’s 95 wins; with the rash of injuries to the starting lineup, it would take a run of perfect luck and perfect health from the pitching staff for the Bombers merely to get to 90. Vegas’ bookies are even more skeptical: They project the Yankees to win only 86 games, with 18-1 odds to emerge as World Series champs. There are 11 clubs with a better shot.

The Yankees’ executives are not deaf to the negative drumbeat. Brian Cashman admits, “I can see why everyone wants to pick us apart. It’s easy to go against us.” The GM is quick to say, “We’re not afraid” of the gloomy horizon, but it’s nevertheless been 22 years since the Yankees looked so ready to fall.

In fact, the 2013 lineup, which is missing Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, would’ve been more imposing in 2007, when the sluggers were at their peak. Robinson Cano is the only Yankee in the sweet spot of his career, and it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll be in pinstripes after free agency next winter.

“It just feels like things are changing over there,” is how one executive described the Yankee culture. Indeed, the big-spending era is more than over; it’s being renounced in a way George Orwell would appreciate, written right out of the franchise’s history books.

In a telling interview with The New York Times last week, Hal Steinbrenner said, “My firmly held belief is that you don’t have to have a $200 million payroll to be world champion. And the historical data that led me to that conclusion is rock solid.”

That sentiment is now permanently encoded in the team’s business plan. The Yankees are aiming for a $189 million payroll in 2014, and, according to those familiar with ownership’s thinking, have no intention of ever again crossing the $200 million threshold. Although those who regularly interact with the Steinbrenners believe the family has no intention of selling the Yankees, the sudden reversal in financial policy suggests the possibility at least exists.

The willingness to divest from the YES Network, once considered the franchise’s crown jewel, speaks volumes about the post-George Steinbrenner ethos. Rupert Murdoch’s FOX conglomerate now owns 49 percent of Yes, with an option to buy up to 80 percent in three years. It’s unthinkable that the Boss would’ve been so eager to divvy up his empire, but these are obviously different times.

For now, the Yankees are trying to hold off the barbarian horde, at least for one more year. Even though the warranty has expired on many of their moving parts, it would be wrong to dismiss the Bombers altogether.

Remember, it was only a year ago the world was still propping up the Phillies as a National League superpower. And no one foresaw the rise of the A’s and Orioles. So when Cashman says, “We’ll find a way to get it done,” he’s drawing on a legacy that’s nearly untarnished; the Bombers have made it to the playoffs 17 of the past 18 years.

Except the AL East is likely to be entirely homogenized in 2013. There’s no runaway favorite, which means no one could win more than 90 games. If so, the division may not have a wild-card candidate, which puts even greater pressure on the Yankees to finish first.

Can they? There are red flags everywhere. Teixeira could be out for the entire season with a torn tendon sheath in his right wrist. Granderson, recovering from a broken forearm, could miss more than the 10 weeks doctors originally estimated. When asked recently by a friend how he’s feeling, the center fielder flatly said, “Not too good.”

Even Jeter is swimming upstream. He took a cortisone shot in his ankle after playing back-to-back games for the first time this spring. And after missing a number of starts, he will start the season on the disabled list instead of at the top of the lineup.

Jeter, of course, craves a challenge, and has won his share of wars against the aging process. Still, there’s no rational reason to believe Jeter can duplicate his major league-leading, 216-hit campaign in 2013. No 39-year-old shortstop has ever been as productive or as durable as Jeter was last season as a 38-year-old. He hates hearing about that, though, which is why, upon further notice, reporters will be stonewalled any time they ask the Forbidden Question: How are you feeling?

This much is certain, however: Jeter will be wildly cheered on Opening Day, April 1, which is more than can be said for Rodriguez. For some reason, the Yankees decided to include A-Rod in the pregame ceremonies, despite the fact he’s still months away from rejoining the team on the field.

Surely, the Yankees’ hierarchy knows A-Rod, one of the central figures in the Biogenesis drug scandal, will be booed the moment his name is announced over the public address system. But maybe that’s the point: It’s a way of punishing the slugger, allowing him to get soaked by a steady drizzle of abuse. It won’t be pretty, but then again, nothing feels quite right for the Yankees as they try to outrun history’s long reach: Is this 1991 or, worse, 1965?