When your team is grappling with the Rays for the best record in baseball, there is not much that needs to be overhauled. But fine tuning is always a consideration, especially considering the high standard that Tampa Bay has established over the first two and a half months of the season. Then there is the presence of the Red Sox, who have quietly moved within sniffing distance of first place. Those factors, coupled with the long-term concerns over the groin and the hip (not again!) of Alex Rodriguez, should have the Yankees thinking about their infield depth and their overall bench strength.
Kevin Russo and Ramiro Pena, the two current backup infielders, have hit about as well as Chicken Stanley on a good day. If A-Rod has to miss significant time later this season, or if he has to be relegated to extensive DH duty, the Yankees will find themselves with a gaping hole at the hot corner. So lo and behold, two significant names have found themselves designated for assignment over the last week. They are Jake Fox, late of Oakland, and Akinori Iwamura, formerly of Pittsburgh. Both players happen to be having lousy seasons (their combined OPS figures would fall short of one of Barry Bonds’ hallmark seasons), but both are far better hitters than they have shown. Either man would give the Yankees a better backup option at third base, while also providing depth at other positions.
The 27-year-old Fox is not much of a corner defender, but he can hit like a third baseman–at least when it comes to power. (Fox slugged a respectable .468 for the Cubs in 2009.) He can also play the outfield, serve as a DH against left-handers, and perhaps most significantly, is capable of putting on shin guards and a face mask. He would make an ideal third catcher, far better than the offensively-overwhelmed Chad Moeller.
Then there is the lefty-swinging Iwamura, who would be even more welcome than Fox. He was originally a third baseman, before the Rays moved him to second base as a way of making room for Evan Longoria. The 31-year-old Iwamura is a competent defender at two positions, has a patient approach at the plate, and reaches base often enough to become a pinch-hitting option. A smart player on both sides of the ball, Iwamura might rejuvenate himself with a departure from the dreadful Pirates, who have a history of sapping the talent from veteran (and younger) players.
Neither Iwamura nor Fox are world beaters, but they are both upgrades over the current state of affairs being provided by Pena and Russo. In some ways, they are this year’s versions of Jerry Hairston, Jr. and Eric Hinske. Iwamura or Fox won’t cost much to obtain, at most a C-level prospect, and at worst, nothing more than a waiver claim. I hope Brian Cashman gives one of them a long look…
Like most Yankee fans who remember the early 1990s, I was both saddened and shocked to hear of the passing of Oscar Azocar, who died from a heart attack at the age of 45. As the Yankees slogged through a dreadful 1990 season, the organization created a glimpse of hope with the promotions of Kevin Maas, Jim Leyritz, and Azocar to New York in mid-summer. All three players made immediate splashes, with Azocar taking hold of the starting left field job for a spell. But Azocar and Maas burned out quickly, with only Leyritz having any real staying power.
A free swinger to the point of extremity, Azocar turned out to be a fringe major leaguer, but it’s not fair to characterize his legacy so simply. He was also a delightful personality who was playful with cameramen and good-hearted with teammates and just about everyone else he encountered at the ballpark. Always smiling, Azocar brought some happiness to the Yankee Stadium clubhouse during dark times. Oscar is worth more than a brief mention in this space; I’ll write more extensively about him in an upcoming edition of “Card Corner.”
There will be a slew of former Yankees in Cooperstown this weekend to participate in the second annual Hall of Fame Classic, which takes place on Sunday at Doubleday Field. The pinstriped list includes fan favorites (Mike Pagliarulo), living legends (Goose Gossage and Phil Niekro), remnants of the glorious 1970s (Paul Blair), the tall (Dennis Rasmussen), cameo players (Lee Smith), remnants of the inglorious early 1990s (Tim Leary and Brian Boehringer), and the obscure (Tim McIntosh).
The Hall of Fame and the MLB Players Alumni Association recently added another ex-Yankee, Campy Campaneris, to the list of players traveling to Cooperstown. Although Campaneris played only one season in The Bronx, he will forever be linked to the Yankees because of his participation in Dave Righetti’s no-hitter, a contest that remains in the loop of baseball’s greatest games.
One other ex-Yankee, Jay Johnstone, has had to withdraw from this year’s classic. The “Moon Man” served as a backup on the 1978 world championship team and later returned to the organization as a radio broadcaster. So there goes, at least for the moment, my chance to ask Jay Bird what it was like to work the booth with John Sterling.
Bruce Markusen lives in Cooperstown with his wife Sue and daughter Maddie.