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Despite missing stars, Yanks continue winning tradition

NEW YORK -- Even now, nearly three years after his death, George Steinbrenner has sway in the Yankees' clubhouse and influence on their record. That appears to be the case these days as his team keeps its head and logo above water and stays close enough to the Red Sox so that its rather light footsteps remain audible in Boston.

A residue of The Boss evidently remains in the Bronx. No one is screaming, not loud enough to be heard by the public or the media, anyway. No threats, no lie-detector tests, ill-conceived trades or banishments, no Mr. May proclamations, though one might be appropriate beginning Wednesday. But an atmosphere that Steinbrenner's manner and money helped create over the better part of four decades still exists.

He liked to call it a "winning tradition" and others -- general managers, managers, coaches and players -- wore out the term over the years. It often seemed like lip service. They Yankees were winning, so the term could be applied. Who could question it so long as a first-place finish or a postseason appearance was accomplished? But the Yankees almost always have had superior talent that made tradition a secondary component in their winning equation.

No longer. Because of injuries and austerity measures uncharacteristic to the franchise since CBS was in charge of the treasury, the Yankees' roster is limited. Their personnel has deteriorated, from superior in 2012 to subordinate in 2013. There is no substitute for talent, but these Yankees are more than getting by with substitute talent.

Something else is at work in the Bronx. No Jeter, no Tex, no Grandy, no A-Rod, no new dazzling free-agent talent to fill the holes created by attrition and a checkbook gone limp. And now, no Youkilis, either. Yet when the Yankees engaged the Astros on Tuesday night, their winning percentage began with a six. And their 7-4 victory over the American League's newest weak sister put it at .615. And only the Red Sox and Rangers had higher percentages.

It may be, after all, that a winning tradition does live at the intersection of East 161st St. and River Ave. The Yankees have been so successful for so long that winning with diminished talent now is possible. They're accustomed to winning. And, as they always say, they "expect to win."

They're winning, not because of the ghosts Jeter invokes from time to time, but because they have conceded to neither the medical adversity they have endured nor the short-handedness engineered by their policymakers. They ought to be applauded for that.

Even the ever-demanding Boss would find the team's current standing acceptable, given the quality of players assigned to the disabled list.

Now they have a lineup manned by players not comparable to even the level of those on the bench last season, when Eduardo Nunez's place was in the dugout, not in Jeter's footprints; when Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez -- ideal Yankee Stadium swingers -- were available for pinch-hitting and occasional starts.

Now they have Corban Joseph, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, Jayson Nix, Chris Stewart and Brennan Boesch. They were in the lineup Tuesday night. The Astros and the Marlins are more anonymous, but their players may be in the big leagues in three years. Those seven Yankees are not so likely to last. Someone in the Yankees' clubhouse now refers to his colleagues, not as the Bronx Bombers, but as the Castaways.

But the Castaways are ahead of the Orioles, Blue Jays and Rays.

Admit it, expectations for the 2013 Yankees were significantly closer to bleak than they were to encouraging when the team was in training in Tampa, Fla. That was before manager Joe Girardi's group lost four times in their first five games and before the prognosis for Jeter included the word July. We expected to hear a mayday well before we reached May Day.

But now, the defending American League East champions are nearly done with one-sixth of their season, and their winning percentage begins with a 6. Shocking? Hardly. Surprising? Well, yes to some degree. And some might think a .600 winning percentage by a team stripped of its best players is worth a "Wow!"

OK, the Red Sox and Tigers had their way with the Yankees in the season's first week, and the Rays won two of the three when the Yankees were in St. Petersburg. But the team that has yet to see its shortstop, center fielder or first baseman swing, has won six of seven against the Blue Jays, whose pedigree was unquestioned five weeks ago.

And now their depth chart is under greater attack because of Youkilis' back. It's sprained, and he's disabled. But these Yankees appear to have a healthy and strong backbone. It could all turn ugly, even grotesque, for them soon after the Astros' departure Wednesday. The A's, Royals and Rockies, all with winning records, come next. Talent still trumps tradition.

But these Yankees haven't lived down to the expectations. The Boss would be pleased and proud that his manner and his residual effect might have contributed to their unyielding posture.

Marty Noble is a reporter for

New York Yankees