COMMENTARY | There have been a number of bright spots for the New York Yankees since spring training began a month ago.
Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner are hitting like their old selves, Robinson Cano's father hinted that the younger Cano wants to be a Yankee forever, and the team's relief corps is shaping up to be one of the American League's best.
Nearly lost in the injury news of Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and (more recently) Brian Cashman, the lackluster performance and outlook of three Yankees has been somewhat overlooked. Two of the top three disappointments are, in my opinion, essential to the team's success -- starter Phil Hughes and reliever Joba Chamberlain. The third, prospect Austin Romine, was someone whom many fans hoped would break camp as the Yankees' starting catcher and add some youth to an aging club.
Phil Hughes - Hughes is a former "can't-miss" prospect in his walk year who caught the injury bug during a Feb. 18 incident that led to being shut down for two weeks. Since suffering two bulging discs in his back, Hughes hasn't thrown from a mound and recently told Newsday that he's "lost maybe a tick of … arm strength."
Yankees fan should be holding their breath that Hughes' back aches won't be a recurring problem for the 26-year-old right-hander. Manager Joe Giradi, meanwhile, isn't taking any chances. The manager has hinted that Hughes -- who has yet to make a "spring" appearance -- may not be ready to the start the season with the club. The Yankees are relying on Hughes for 30-plus starts this season, and his rehabilitation efforts will be critical in ensuring that 2013 doesn't start out like 2012, when Hughes was 4-5 with a 5.64 ERA after his first 10 starts.
Joba Chamberlain - The big righty has had two spring training appearances. In one, he pitched an inning and gave up three hits, two walks, and two earned runs. In the other, he struck out two in a 1-2-3 inning against the Philadelphia Phillies and, afterward, chose the occasion to tell reporters that he thinks he has the capacity to be a starting pitcher again. (At least he didn't injure himself after the outing.)
Yankees brass are likely tired of Chamberlain's antics, which last year included a trampoline accident. When the pitcher's remarks were repeated to Giradi, the catcher-turned-manager replied, "Yeah. And I'd like to catch, you know, one more game, too." Cashman didn't mince words, joking, "Well, we're down an outfield bat right now, too. See if he can play [outfield]."
This spring, Yankees fans hoped Chamberlain would rebound after two injury-plagued seasons; however, it appears that Chamberlain's breakout 2007 campaign (0.38 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 24 regular-season innings and one forgettable bout against a swarm of midges in the postseason) will remain nothing but a distant memory. Instead of focusing on trying to capture the title of Heir to Mariano Rivera, the tweet-a-day Chamberlain -- who is eligible for free agency at the end of the season -- seems more focused on grabbing Nick Swisher's title as Most Outspoken Yankee.
The Yankees have an eighth-inning reliever in David Robertson, but the addition of Chamberlain as a solid seventh-inning reliever would go a long way to shorten games for a starting rotation that includes Andy Pettitte (age 40) and Hideki Kuroda (age 38).
Austin Romine - It's been one month since Romine, one of the Yankees' top catching prospects, has had the opportunity to show Giradi why he should make the big-league club. Things got off great for the 24-year-old when he arrived at camp 13 pounds lighter than last year and announced that he didn't want to go to Triple-A. Since then, there's been little good news.
Many observers had lofty expectations for Romine, including myself, but Romine's hitting in the Arizona Fall League (.222 BA in 16 games) continued into spring training, where he's gone 1-for-6 in four games. Romine's lackluster performance has led many Yankees fans to start paying attention to J.R. Murphy, 21, who has two doubles and a home run this spring.
For years, Yankees fans were spoiled when Jorge Posada and, to an extent, Russell Martin played the role of a hitting catcher. If Romine doesn't step up this spring and make the big-league club, the Yankees may be left with two light-hitting backstops on the roster from the trio of Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, and Bobby Wilson. It will also mean that Murphy (a 2009 second-round draft pick) will be forced to start the year in Double-A Trenton instead of Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.