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Even before he arrives following yearlong ban, Alex Rodriguez dominates Yanks' spring training

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TAMPA, Florida — Even before Alex Rodriguez arrives, his looming return dominates spring training for the New York Yankees.

After missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in two decades, the Yankees open their first spring training since Derek Jeter's retirement with an aging roster in transition, questions about key starting pitchers and intense focus on A-Rod's return at age 39 from a yearlong drug suspension.

During manager Joe Girardi's opening 33-minute news conference Friday, which was televised live back to New York, nine of 36 questions were about Rodriguez, including seven of the first 21. A-Rod isn't even due to report until Wednesday, and Girardi expects "a big splash."

"A lot of media coverage, a lot of questions you have to answer, that's part of the gig here," Girardi said. "If you're with the New York Yankees, you have to learn how to handle situations like this because it's going to happen. The one thing you need to have as a New York Yankees' player, the one thing you have to have as a champion, is thick skin."

New York re-signed Chase Headley during the offseason to play third base. Rodriguez will have to compete for at-bats at designated hitter and perhaps as an infield backup.

"I think it's fair for him to have a number of at-bats before you really start to judge where he might be at," Girardi said. "I think it's going to take him a good part of spring training just to get his timing down."

Rodriguez was suspended for violations of baseball's drug agreement and labor contract. He turns 40 in July, has had major operations on both hips and hasn't played a full season since 2007.

New York is responsible for $61 million owed to Rodriguez in the final three seasons of his 10-year contract.

"He's on our roster," Girardi said. "I think you have to prove yourself in the sense for playing time and how you fit in. We really haven't seen him play in two years."

PHOTO: New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi closes his eyes while responding to a question during a news conference at spring training baseball , Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. Yankees pitchers and catchers begin official workouts Feb. 21. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi closes his eyes while responding to a question during a news conference at spring training baseball , Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. Yankees pitchers and catchers begin official workouts Feb. 21. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Girardi plans to talk with A-Rod about working out at first base, which could allow other players to get time at DH during spring training. Rodriguez also could play in minor leagues exhibition games, which would allow him to bat every inning.

Girardi will speak with Rodriguez after he reports.

"I can have the conversion over the phone, but I can't see his face and his reaction to it," Girardi said.

Rodriguez apologized to team officials in person during a meeting at Yankee Stadium on Feb. 10. They suggested he hold a news conference before the start of spring training and offered the use of the ballpark, but Rodriguez declined and issued a written apology this week.

"A person's approach is the way they feel most comfortable about doing it," Girardi said. "I think he apologized to the game. Steroids has hurt this game, and it's changed the way that we look at a lot of things in this game. It saddens me."

With New York seeking its first World Series title since 2009, Rodriguez is among a group of older players that includes Mark Teixeira (34), Brian McCann (31) and Carlos Beltran (37).

Still, CC Sabathia is coming off knee surgery and the Yankees don't know if right-hander Masahiro Tanaka's elbow will hold up following a partial ligament tear that sidelined him for 2 1/2 months during his first season with New York.

The Yankees started last season with the oldest average roster age in the major leagues at 31 years, 225 days, according to STATS, and made several moves to get younger.

Nathan Eovaldi (24) is expected to be in the starting rotation, while Didi Gregorius (25) likely will get most of the playing time at shortstop.

Dellin Betances (26), coming off a strong rookie year, and Andrew Miller are the top contenders to replace departed closer David Robertson.

"I think we've added a lot of good young arms," Girardi said. "Added some good young players as well. I think we've really seen an improvement in our young minor league players and the impact they are capable of having. I think we will continue to see that for years to come."

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PHOTO: New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi responds to a question during a news conference at spring training baseball , Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. Yankees pitchers and catchers begin official workouts Feb. 21. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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