Phil Rogers: Granderson has the right stuff

Curtis Granderson has been a Yankee for one season and a handful of days. It seems like he has been in the Bronx forever.

That's because Granderson is a rare breed — a highly skilled pro who is naturally aware of the world outside the clubhouse walls and works to forge alliances. The Tigers replaced him with an excellent center fielder/leadoff man in Austin Jackson but he didn't really take his place. You can't.

Like Derek Jeter, he plays so much bigger than his statistics, which can be dissected to show he's little more than an average player. Really?

Yankees manager Joe Girardi certainly doesn't think Granderson is little more than an average player. He told reporters in spring training he was his second best player down the stretch in 2010, meaning he was valued above every Yankee except MVP candidate Robinson Cano.

That says a ton when you consider he is on a roster that includes Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, among others.

Granderson embraced the chance to go to New York in the roster-shuffling that saw the Tigers deal him and Edwin Jackson while trying to remain a contender.

A .268 career hitter, Granderson got off to a slow start but ended 2010 hitting .247 with 24 home runs. But you can't stop there in analyzing him. He and left fielder Brett Gardner provided tremendous outfield defense for arguably the best fielding team in the AL, and he came alive when it mattered most.

Seventeen of his 24 homers and 43 of his 67 RBIs came after the All-Star break, and he was a tough out in the playoffs. He hit .357 in the nine games against the Twins and Rangers with one homer and six RBIs.

Granderson battled a strained muscle in his right side during spring training, leaving his Opening Day in question, but he hit well enough during a simulated game Tuesday for Girardi to play him Thursday against the Tigers.

He made two of his trademark diving catches in center and hit a long home run off Tigers lefty Phil Coke — who was included in the three-team, six-player Granderson trade — to start the season right.

It had to be sweet against his old team, but he's a world traveler, not an excitable guy.

"You have friendships, you made friendships (in Detroit), but you also continue to make them with new teams, and that's what I'm doing now," Granderson said. "Nothing forgotten at all with Detroit, but history starts to set in, per se, because it is another year removed, another day removed and another game removed."

There are serious questions about the 2011 Yankees. But not center field.

So begins the task: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website contained a poll Friday morning, asking readers if John Axford will be the closer when the season ends? That's what happens when you can't hold a three-run lead on Opening Day, and you haven't had a full season as closer.

Axford was very good a year ago, converting 24 of 27 save chances and limiting opponents to a .204 batting average. He didn't have a good spring, however, and the walk-off home run by the Reds' Ramon Hernandez was a nightmare beginning.

Brewers ace Yovani Gallardo insists he and his fellow pitchers won't lose faith in Axford quickly. But how will the 28-year-old Axford handle such a bad moment?

"It's a long year," he told the Journal Sentinel's' Tom Haudricourt. "We have 161 games left. I'm pretty sure I'll be all right."

One thing not likely to go away is the shaky fielding that contributed to Axford's blown save. Third baseman Casey McGehee made a bad decision on a ninth-inning grounder. The Brewers added pitching over the winter but weakened already suspect fielding, swapping Alcides Escobar for Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop.

Closely watched: The Twins weren't sure until Wednesday whether they could play Justin Morneau in their Friday opener. He had a rough time hitting in spring training after he was cleared for baseball activity, and you have to wonder whether he ever will be the offensive force he was before suffering a concussion last July.

Manager Ron Gardenhire says the goal is to help Morneau find a rhythm without overextending him, and that he will be rested "here and there early."

Morneau went 5-for-33 in spring training, with three doubles and no home runs.

The Twins are much more optimistic about Joe Mauer, who also had no spring homers. He played only eight games but the team insists his surgically repaired left knee is not a problem.

Nametags, please: Is Eric Wedge wondering what he got himself into? Wedge's first Mariners' team broke camp with five non-roster players making the 25-man roster.

That group is a virtual who's-he of guys that have been around — Jamey Wright, Chris Ray, Luis Rodriguez, Ryan Langerhans and Adam Kennedy. And none of those five qualify as the biggest surprise on the Opening Day roster.

That would be 27-year-old right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen, who pitched for the Mariners' Class A team in Clinton, Iowa, last season after taking six years away from affiliated baseball.

He was a seventh-round pick of the Brewers and considered a rising prospect before the club suspended him for the 2004 season after two positive tests for marijuana.

Two years ago on Father's Day, he told his dad he would attempt a comeback and caught on with the independent Tucson Toros. He got a job with the Mariners after trying out for general manager Jack Zduriencik, who had been the scouting director for the Brewers. He earned his spot throwing 97-mph strikes.

The last word: "Why are you crying? I'm the one who has to play right field every day." — The Giants' Aubrey Huff after rookie first baseman Brandon Belt made the team.

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