I love the New York Post’s sports section (if not the cartoons), but George King sometimes makes strange observations in his role as a beat writer for the Yankees. In last Sunday’s Post, King warned the Yankees not to commit Joba Chamberlain to the rotation because of the age of closer Mariano Rivera. “The Yankees… pray the end isn’t here [for Rivera],” King wrote on Sunday. “Because if they use Joba Chamberlain as a starter, there isn’t a closer candidate in the organization.” Well, I’m not so sure of that. Right off the top, I can think of three. Hard-throwing right-hander Mark Melancon (who reaches 97 miles per hour with his fastball) is generally ranked among the top ten prospects in the Yankee system and is scheduled to begin the season as closer at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, assuming he doesn’t claim one of the last spots in Joe Girardi’s bullpen. Then there’s the talented Humberto Sanchez, finally recovered from Tommy John surgery two years ago and likely to begin the season a step away at Triple-A. The Yankees also have right-hander Anthony Claggett, who dominated hitters at Double-A Trenton and might start the season in Scranton, too.
Without much doubt, closers are easier to find than quality starters, especially in the current Yankee farm system, where relievers are growing like the vines at Wrigley Field. That’s not to say that the Yankees will find anyone the equal of Rivera, who might just be the best reliever in major league history. Heck, unless the Yankees can find the next Dennis Eckersley, chances are that ANYBODY they choose will fall short of the great Rivera. But the Yankees clearly have promising options outside of Chamberlain—options that aren’t light years away. And they also have several short-term possibilities at the major league level, including Jose Veras, Brian Bruney, and Jonathan “Kerfeld” Albaladejo, the latter coming off a wondrous Winter League performance. So let’s not start this Joba-must-be-in-the-bullpen chorus just yet…
This has been a lousy free agent market for most players, but it may provide some unexpected benefits for the Yankees later this spring. A number of serviceable players remain unsigned—the master list includes Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Garret Anderson, Ben Sheets, and Joe Beimel—some of whom could fill potential holes should the Yankees spring a few leaks in Tampa. For example, let’s say that something happens to Jorge Posada, that something being that his shoulder won’t allow him to catch. Brian Cashman has already missed opportunities on Henry Blanco and Gregg Zaun, but there could be an option in Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, who remains unsigned. I-Rod has a standing offer from the awful Astros, but reportedly is holding out hope that the Mets will show interest. Therein lies the problem; the Mets already have two healthy catchers in Brian Schneider and Ramon Castro. So if Rodriguez remains stubborn, he might still be available.
Then there’s the center field situation. If both Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner flop in the Grapefruit League, the Yankees could consider Jim Edmonds as a cheap alternative. Edmonds is a fragment of his former self and hits lefties about as well as Jim Spencer once did, but still plays an above-average center field. He hit well for the Cubs during the second half of 2008; the Yankees would do cartwheels over a repeat of that performance.
Finally, the Yankees could take a run at Juan Cruz if they decide their bullpen needs another veteran. A beefier version of Domingo Jean (remember him?), the razor-thin Cruz excels in the seventh and eighth inning but has a history of blowing up in save situations. As long as Rivera remains capable, Cruz wouldn’t have to worry about pitching in many of those situations in pinstripes.
Former major league outfielder and onetime Yankee scout Ted Uhlaender died earlier this month at the age of 68, the victim of a heart attack. Cruelly, his passing came only one day after he’d received some encouraging news in his ongoing battle against multiple myeloma. A fleet-footed outfielder who played a nifty center field in the late 1960s, Uhlaender started his career with the Twins before being included in the deal that sent future Yankee Graig Nettles to the Indians. He saw his career fall off abruptly by 1972, but not before he made a cameo appearance in the World Series for Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”
After a brief stint as a minor league manager, Uhlaender opted to go into private business. He returned to the game in 1989, joining the Yankees as a minor league coach before becoming the team’s advance scout in 1994 and ’95. He prepared in-depth reports on upcoming opponents for Buck Showalter and his staff. Those reports paid some dividends in ’95, as the Yankees claimed their first playoff berth in 14 years.
A few years ago, I met Uhlaender in spring training, where he was working as a coach with the Indians. As I asked him if he would be willing to answer some questions about the ’72 World Series, I noticed his face; he had that stern, sandpaper look of a hardened baseball veteran. Though I was intimidated at first, Uhlaender answered all of my questions, calmly and without fanfare. He was a pro, a characterization that was confirmed for me when I read Tracy Ringolsby’s touching tribute to him last week. Like the late John Vukovich and Pat Dobson, Uhlaender was a hard-working baseball lifer whose hard-edged appearance only masked a deep love of the game. As with Vuk and Dobber, we’ll miss a solid guy like Uhlaender.