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Observations From Cooperstown: Replacing Joba, Cervelli, and The Gray Fox

Posted By Bruce Markusen On June 10, 2011 @ 9:08 am In 1: Featured,Baseball,Bruce Markusen,Obituaries,Observations From Cooperstown | Comments Disabled

The fashionable pitching rules of today couldn’t prevent injury to Phil Hughes and now they’ve failed to save Joba Chamberlain, who is lost for the season with a torn elbow ligament. I’ll spare you a diatribe about the Yankees’ counterproductive babying of their young pitchers and try to answer a more immediate question: who do the Yankees turn to beef up their bullpen?

David Robertson should be fine in the eighth inning, and Luis Ayala may be passable in the seventh, but the Yankees will need more help, at least until Rafael Soriano returns from the M*A*S*H unit. Jeff Marquez and Amaury Sanit are clearly not the answers, nothing more than stopgaps. I’d love to see the Yankees do something daring and try Tim Norton, the six-foot, five-inch, 230-pound right-hander who was just promoted to Scranton after dominating Eastern League hitters. At 28, Norton was clearly too old for Double-A ball, but scouts love his ability to throw a heavy fastball in the 94 to 95 mile-an-hour range. Now recovered from back problems that curtailed his 2010 season, he’s a more complete pitcher who throws strikes. At least one scout has already said that Norton is better than Chamberlain, so why not give him a look in the late innings?

If Norton is too much of a reach, the Yankees could give a look to righty Kevin Whelan, the last remnant of the ill-fated Gary Sheffield-to-the-Tigers trade. As Scranton’s closer, Whelan has struck out 30 batters in 27 innings while holding the International League to a 1.67 ERA. Once considered a real prospect, Whelan is now 27, but is worth a whirl…

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It’s beyond me what Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman continue to see in Francisco Cervelli. He made two more errors the other night, bringing his season total to four, and actually putting himself near last year’s pace, when he committed 13 miscues as the backup to Jorge Posada. Cervelli’s throwing is even more atrocious. He’s thrown out a dreadful 11 per cent of runners, down from last year’s merely awful 14 per cent. These are simply not acceptable major league numbers. Cliff Johnson or Curt Blefary could have done better in their day.

As a hitter, Cervelli is mediocre at best, with little power and only a decent walk rate that is worth mentioning on the plus side. Frankly, he’s been living off that hot start to the 2010 season for more than a year now, and it’s high time for the brain trust to take note and a make a change. With Russell Martin ailing, the Yankees need to bring up Jesus Montero NOW–and not in July or August.

I know what the naysayers are saying: Montero is not hitting–he‘s down to a .336 on-base percentage and a .416 slugging percentage–so why bring him up now? Well, it’s possible that Montero is just frustrated over the Yankees’ decision not to promote him at the end of spring training. Sometimes, a call-up is just what a discouraged young player of enormous offensive talent needs. Given Cervelli’s ineptitude, the Yankees should be willing to take the chance on Montero. I don’t see how he could play significantly worse than Cervelli.

If you’re wondering about Austin Romine, he’s not a candidate because of health concerns. Although he’s having a very good season for Double-A Trenton, where he leads the Thunder in hitting and RBIs, he was just placed on the seven-day disabled list with concussion-like symptoms. So that makes him currently unavailable, putting the onus squarely on Montero…

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[1]
Earlier this week, the baseball world lost two good ones from my childhood years, as Jose Pagan and Jim Northrup both lost battles with Alzheimer’s disease. I wrote about Pagan earlier this week at The Hardball Times, where I touted him as a deserving candidate to become the game’s first black manager ahead of Frank Robinson, but Northrup is certainly worth an extended mention, too.

Northrup was a very good and underrated player for the Tigers, a significant part of their 1968 world championship team and a versatile defender who could handle all three positions in the outfield. A left-handed hitter with power and a knack for hitting grand slams (he hit five in 1968), Northrup gave those Tigers teams of Mayo Smith and Billy Martin some much needed balance. The Tigers’ lineups of that era tended to run heavy to the right, with Al Kaline, Willie Horton, and Bill Freehan forming much of the offensive nucleus. Northrup and Norm Cash gave the Tigers a left-handed presence, discouraging American League opponents from loading up on right-handed pitching.

Noted author Tom Stanton, who has often written about the Tigers as subjects of his books, remembers the ex-Tiger outfielder fondly. “When I think of Northrup, I think of clutch hitting and grand slams and his triple in the 1968 Series [which provided the winning runs in Game Seven] . His name inevitably evokes our unusual outfield situation. We had four top outfielders — Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Northrup — who played together for a decade, sharing duties. This glut of talent, of course, led to Mickey Stanley being shifted to shortstop in the 1968 Series.”

Off the field, Northrup provided the Tigers with one of their most memorable personalities. Nicknamed “The Gray Fox” because of his premature graying, Northrup loved to talk. All one had to do was say hi to him, and that would ignite a quick reply and a long-lasting conversation. A natural conversationalist, Northrup became a Tigers broadcaster in the eighties and nineties, giving him a forum to express his many opinions. When the Tigers changed owners, management decided to fire Northrup because they considered him too opinionated, fearful of his criticism of the new ownership.

Northrup could also lose his temper. He once fought with A’s relief pitcher Jack Aker after “The Chief” hit him with a pitch during the 1968 season. And, not surprisingly, Northrup clashed with Billy Martin, who didn’t play the outfielder as often as he would have liked. Northrup felt that Martin took credit for the team’s victories but often blamed the players when the Tigers fell short.

During the 1974 season, Northrup’s passionate personality led to his departure from Detroit. When the Tigers released Norm Cash late in 1974, they didn’t tell him directly; “Stormin’ Norman” heard it about it on his car radio while driving to the ballpark. Northrup was furious at the Tigers’ inconsiderate treatment of his longtime teammate and friend. He barged into the office of manager Ralph Houk (another ex-Yankee), loudly expressing his disapproval of the handling of Cash’s release. The next day, the Tigers sold Northrup to the Expos.

Jim Northrup, a man who cared, sounded like the kind of guy I would have liked to meet.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.


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