In 2008 the New York Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in thirteen years.  They returned emphatically last season, winning the World Series behind the biggest payroll in baseball, a trio of expensive free agents, a rejuvenated Derek Jeter, and an uncharacteristically dominant post-season from Alex Rodriguez.

What will they do as an encore?

“Flame out miserably,” would be the hopeful response from anyone with a soul who didn’t grow up a Yankee fan.

Yes, while the Evil Empire may have lost its emperor this season with the passing of longtime owner George Steinbrenner, they’ve got a long way to go before they’ll lose the distinction of being the most hateable team in baseball, and perhaps all of sports.

And yet, despite the playoff berth, it was a reasonably good season for Yankee haters. Derek Jeter finally started looking his age, the back end of the rotation was, in a word, terrible, and they weren’t able to hold off the Tampa Bay Rays, only managing to make the playoffs as the Wild Card team.

Yeah, I know that’s not exactly Pittsburgh Pirates bad, but come on, it’s the best we’ve got.

The Competition

Though many faces have changed, the Yankees and Twins are familiar playoff foes. Three of Minnesota’s last four exits from the post-season have come at the hands of the Yankees, including last year’s three-game ALDS sweep. But this time around it’s the Twins who have home field advantage, with the five-game series opening Wednesday night at Target Field. They’ll be hoping that the new park and the cold Minnesota October will make for a better result.

The Difference Maker

The Yankees have so many difference makers on their roster that it’s hard to pick just one, but above all else one number stands out: $213,359,389.

That, of course, is the Yankees’ payroll according to Cot’s. And while it’s not all money well spent (cough! Burnett! cough!), it’s still plenty of fliff to keep patching over the holes in an aging exterior every year. And while the Twins actually spend more than you might think (over $97-million this year, according to Cot’s), like every other team, they’re not even approaching the Yankees’ stratosphere.

Injuries

The Yankees, despite the advanced age of many of their players, find themselves relatively healthy coming into the postseason. Only three of their players are currently out injured, LHP Damaso Marte, RHP Alfredo Aceves, and (completely unsurprisingly) 1B/DH Nick Johnson, none of whom played significant roles this season.

Of course, if you consider the wonky head syndrome suffered by pitchers Javier Vazquez and AJ Burnett as “injuries,” the list gets slightly more interesting.

Strategies

Ahh, yes. Good old AJ Burnett. The Yankees’ high priced, Pete Puma-looking pitcher with a million dollar arm and a ten cent head has had such a miserable season– the second of a five-year $82.5-million pact– that he’ll barely play a role in the ALDS after being left out of the rotation by manager Joe Girardi.

However, Burnett’s seat in the bullpen is an enviable one compared to what’s happened to Javier Vazquez. After being acquired last winter for OF Melky Cabrera and a pair of prospects, last year’s fourth place finisher for the NL Cy Young award lost velocity on his fastball on his way to putting up an xFIP of 4.90 according to Fangraphs, making this by far the worst season of his career (the only other year in which he was close to this bad was, in fact, during his last stint with the Yankees, in 2004). He didn’t even make the playoff roster.

The reluctance to use these two struggling starters means an increased workload on staff ace CC Sabathia, who will likely be called on to pitch on short rest, with Phil Hughes and a 38-year-old Andy Pettitte filling out the rest of the three-man rotation. While this sounds like a possible weakness, it’s the same strategy the Yankees employed last year, on their way to the World Series title.

Still, it means that their playoff hopes rest largely on Sabathia’s wide shoulders, and any faltering on his part could impact the club dramatically.

Summary

With the winding down of the careers of Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, and the struggles of supposedly-key pitchers Burnett and Vazquez, one might wonder if the Yankees’ window is closing, or if this simply might not be their year.

One, of course, would be wrong. Their lineup is still loaded with great hitters, and if Hughes and Pettitte are anywhere near as effective as they’ve been all season, with Sabathia as the workhorse, they’ll be a terribly difficult team to beat. I’d love to say something pithy about this, but as a Toronto Blue Jays fan, it’s just depressing.

Let’s all just cross our fingers that it all unravels somehow, that Burnett is pressed into action, and that this guy ends up typifying the Yankee fan experience here in the 2010 playoffs.

Unless, that is, you actually like the team, in which case we’ll all just pray for your soul.