Bronx, N.Y., January 14, 2007 — One of the highlights of the 2006 Yankee season for this avid fan came in a sleepy Florida town in front of a crowd barely 6,000 strong. On March 5, Joe Torre took the ball from Mike Mussina in a 1-1 game vs. the Toronto Blue Jays with two down in the third and a man on second. There was no question that the tall righty that took Moose’s place was nervous; his second warmup pitch sailed over Jorge Posada’s head and smacked the screen — hard. But Philip Hughes dispatched dangerous Toronto portsided first sacker Lyle Overbay on a bouncer to second on just two throws.
The reasons I have been attending Yankee Spring Training for better than 20 straight years are mostly obvious: It serves as an antidote to baseball addiction to someone seriously suffering pangs. Basking in the warm sunny days is a life-renewing experience. Seeing my Yankee faves up close prepping for the task at hand is a thrill both on and off the field. And the bonus opportunity for a sneak peek at tomorrow’s stars easily pushes the pluses over the top. Yes, watching Hideki Matsui homer in his first Yankee game and the surefire Mr. Hughes first throw a pitch in anger have been early paybacks on great seasons to come.
These thoughts were brought to the fore by what has become an annual rite of spring-to-come for me, the announcement of this year’s list of nonroster invitees. The Yanks have compiled an intriguing list this year, long on potential and promise, and short on the innings eaters with little chance to make an impact that dominated the names heading south for some other campaigns. Mr. Hughes leads a list of at least 10 bona fide prospects expected to wield influence over the club in future years. The Yanks typically open camp with few spots up for grabs, but nonroster guys fight their way onto the team’s top 40, and each year the talent pool is refreshed with new blood, some Yankee draftees, but others arriving after failing to garner much notice with other organizations.
More often than not, representatives of the can’t-miss group have excelled on the big stage, but in other uni’s; witness the play of outfielders of Alfonso Soriano, Marcus Thames, and Juan Rivera, and first baseman Nick Johnson, to name a few. But Alfonso and Nick did some of their finest work in Pinstripes, and the work of Robbie Cano, Melky Cabrera, Kevin Thompson, Matt Smith, Russ Johnson, and Aaron Small have provided local papers with plenty of March fodder in the last few years.
There are disappointments too. My joy at the home run DH Jack Clark hit in his first Yankee at bat in Miami in 1988 turned to disappointment as he promptly injured himself trotting around first base. Friends have still not let me forget my clueless assurances to all who would listen at a March 1989 battle with the Expos in West Palm Beach that Yankee number 72, toiling at short, wouldn’t be making the trip north to the Bronx. My guy Randy Velarde was a lock. My confidence notwithstanding, Alvaro Espinoza would get the starting nod, and averaged 150 games the next three years.
Southpaw Dave Lapoint allowed 10 hits in a span of 12 batters in Fort Myers in 1990, and back-to-back, bullet line drives to Matsui in left by Atlanta’s Marcus Giles and Chipper Jones in Legends Field in 2004 got lefty Gabe White off the hook after six hits (three clearing the fence) and seven runs greeted him in the top of the third. Worst of the lot, however, goes to Ed Yarnall in the same Dunedin, Florida Stadium that Hughes debuted in last year. Penciled in as the no. four 2000 Yankee starter, the young lefty got two quick outs around a double, but a hit by pitch, three home runs, and 10 straight batters reaching safely found him trudging off the mound down 9-0 to David Wells and the Blue Jays.
Multiple appearances do not guarantee success. Alfonso Soriano was a fixture in Tampa from 1999 through 2003, but he wouldn’t garner any real regular-season playing time until 2001. D’Angelo Jimenez stuck for three years, but an off-field injury and a trade short-circuited his Yankee career. Southpaw Randy Choate’s four straight years in Legends never translated into Yankee stardom.
In no position is multiple invites less a reliable guide to appearances in coming Yankee Media Guides than at catcher, wielding the “Tools of Ignorance.” Baseball teams are carried by their pitchers, and the team needs to evaluate lots of right and left arms before heading north with a set 25 players. Someone has to catch all those pitches. The list of veteran spring Tampa backstops is peppered with the few who put in significant time as Jorge Posada’s backup in the last few seasons: Joe Oliver, Tom Pagnozzi, Todd Greene, Bobby Estallela, Alberto Castillo, John Flaherty, Chris Widger, Chris Turner, Tom Wilson, Ben Davis. More impressive still is the list of young guys: Mike Figga, Bobby Hughes, Pascual Matos, Julio Mosquera, Jose Gil, Ryan Hankins, Omar Fuentes, Michel Hernandez, Steve Torrealba, Joe Depastino, Irwil Rojas, Jon-Mark Sprowl, Omir Santos, Dioner Navarro, and David Parrish. Son of former Detroit star Lance Parrish, David has appeared in no less than five Yankee camps. Wil Nieves figures to battle vets Raul Chavez and Todd Pratt for backup Bronx play this year.
The last few seasons have provided very different invitee results. The 2004 list stood out more for familiar names who would play no more games in the House That Ruth Built: Third baseman Drew Henson, catcher Joe Girardi, shortstop Erick Almonte, infielder Homer Bush. Shortstop Felix Escalona and catcher Sal Fasano’s influence would be felt in future years. The following year produced less, with Russ Johnson and Escalona making minor regular season contributions. But the 10-0 record fashioned by Aaron Small down the stretch give that year’s crop more than a passing grade.
And 2006 featured more play by potential Yankees than usual with four starters away at the World Baseball Classic. Andy Phillips seemed a veteran in his fourth Tampa spring, and his best Yankee season followed. Kevin Thompson, Marco Vecchionacci, Ramiro Pena, Wil Nieves, Kevin Howard, Mitch Jones, Jose Veras, Jeff Karstens, Darrell Rasner, Matt DeSalvo, Matt Smith, and Jay Brent Cox dazzled fans with their play. DeSalvo, Veras, Karstens, Rasner, Nieves, and Thompson hold prominent spots in the top 40 now, and Vecchionacci and Pena have re-joined the invitee list, along with Hughes.
Melky Cabrera’s Yankee prospects took a huge hit in 2005 when he failed to handle the midsummer center field sun in both Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. But no player’s future took a bigger upturn due to what took place in Florida in March 2006. Even with a fine winter season behind him, no one realized as Melky was pelting opponents’ pitches all March that he was about to benefit in playing time due to Yankee outfield injuries. But with that spring, then summer and fall behind him, Cabrera no longer shies from the sun now. One-hit wonder Timbuk3 could have been talking about Melky and his Yankee future when they recorded their 1987 song:
My Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.