Is it just me, or does it seem the Yankees can’t ever get through spring training without a significant injury to a key player?
Now that I’ve whined about the latest Yankee woes, let’s put the hip injury to Alex Rodriguez in proper perspective. In regards to recent history, major spring injuries are really nothing new to the franchise. While A-Rod will be spared surgery and the disabled list, at least for the moment, several prominent Yankee players of the past have not been so fortunate during the six weeks that constitute spring training. Injuries, along with suspensions, have become a common theme.
*During the spring of 1986, the Yankees’ prized off-season acquisition, left-hander Britt Burns, began experiencing pain in his hip. The news could not have turned out worse. Doctors diagnosed Burns with a degenerative hip condition, one that would require a complete hip replacement. Expected to fill a much-needed void as a legitimate No. 1 starter, Burns never pitched a game for the Yankees. The hip replacement ended his major league career at the age of 26. With Burns shelved, Dennis Rasmussen stepped up and delivered a career year (including 18 wins), as the Yankees finished second, five and a half games behind the Red Sox. With a healthy Burns, the Yankees would have made that pennant race very interesting.
*Three years later, the Yankees received another devastating blow when they learned that Dave Winfield would need back surgery. Although the injury did not end Winfield’s career, it did wipe out his entire season before it even began. The Yankees tried to fill the breach by concocting trades for Mel Hall and Steve Balboni, but those measures helped only slightly as an already flawed Yankee team stumbled to a record of 74-87, the franchise’s worst mark of the 1980s. After recovering from his back operation, Winfield would appear in only 20 games for the Bombers in 1990 before being dealt to the Angels for past-his-prime right-hander Mike Witt.
*This one did not involve injury, but it had the same effect. In March of 1992, the Yankees learned that Pascual Perez had been suspended for one year because of a failed drug test. The flaky right-hander would miss the entire season—and would never again appear in a major league game. Perez likely would have made little difference for the rebuilding Yankees, who would finish with a record of 76-86 as an AL East also-ran.
*During spring training in 2000, MLB announced that Darryl Strawberry had failed a mandatory drug test, resulting in a one-year suspension. Not only did the “Straw Man” miss all of 2000, but he never again played in a major league game, in part because of an ongoing battle with cancer. The Yankees didn’t miss a beat, however. With a deep bench and a healthy supply of DH’s and outfielders, the Yankees won the AL East in 2000 on their way to a third consecutive world championship.
*In 2007, Chien-Ming Wang landed on the disabled list because of a spring training hamstring pull. Wang did not require surgery, but would miss a handful of starts at the beginning of the season before recovering to log 19 wins and nearly 200 innings. (Andy Pettitte also missed Opening Day because of an achy back, but did not have to hit the DL.) Wang’s spring setback turned out to be a harbinger of things to come, as the Yankees endured a wave of injuries to starting pitchers in April and May. The Yankees recovered, somehow, to win 94 games and make the playoffs in Joe Torre’s last season at the helm…
In some ways, A-Rod’s injury could not have come at a worse time (unless it had happened in the middle of a pennant race). If the Yankees had suspected Rodriguez’ hip was a real concern six weeks or even a month ago, they could have chosen from several credible options on the free agent market. Ty Wigginton would have been a terrific pickup, while Joe Crede would have been a decent, though risky, alternative (because of his bad back). At this point, there is nothing left on the third base shelf, unless the Yankees consider the possibility of converting one of two free agent second basemen. The underrated Ray Durham and the ageless Mark Grudzielanek are still unemployed, but neither wants to retire. If Durham has enough of an arm to make the third-to-first throw, he could be an option at the hot corner, perhaps a platoon partner for Cody Ransom with A-Rod moving to DH. If Rodriguez can gut out the entire season at third, Durham could still be useful as a bench player, backing up A-Rod and Robinson Cano, while serving as an emergency outfielder. Furthermore, his presence would not preclude the Yankees from making a larger deal, for someone like Adrian Beltre or Garrett Atkins, should Rodriguez have to miss the entire season.
In terms of immediate trade possibilities, let me suggest two low-priced alternatives. My first choice is Braves backup Martin Prado, a slick fielder who is also skilled at reaching base, could fill a potential gap at third base and then assume an important bench role if A-Rod returns later. Prado, 25, can play both third and second. The Braves need outfield and relief help, two areas of depth for the Yankees. (How about Melky Cabrera and Dave Robertson?) Another choice is Dallas McPherson, who is buried behind Jorge Cantu on Florida’s depth chart. McPherson, 29, has defensive limitations and will never be the player that the Angels once forecast, but he has Death Valley power and draws walks. A left-handed batter, he could platoon with Ransom during an A-Rod absence. A Grade-C pitching prospect would likely be enough to entice the Marlins…
Former Yankee Tom Sturdivant died last Saturday at the age of 78, the cause of his death not immediately revealed. Though not a household name, Sturdivant made his mark in New York during the 1950s. He’s probably best remembered for throwing a devastating curveball, which earned the right-hander the nickname “Snake,” reflecting the pitch’s extreme and sudden movements. (Strangely, learning about Sturdivant’s nickname made me think almost immediately of “Snake Pliskin,” the hero of Escape From New York.) At his peak, Sturdivant emerged as an important part of Yankee pitching staffs that helped the team win three straight pennants and one world championship from 1955 to 1957. In 1956, Sturdivant won Game Four of the World Series—the game that everyone forgets because it directly preceded Don Larsen’s perfect game.
After a terrific two-and-a-half-year run, Sturdivant hurt his arm in 1958, rendering him to mere journeyman status. Pitching mostly in relief, he bounced around both leagues, making stops in Kansas City, Boston, Washington, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and then a return engagement in New York—this time with the expansion Mets. He called it quits in 1964, ending a ten-year career with a won-loss record of 59-51 and a respectable ERA of 3.74.