Waiting in the Wings

So far this spring the sports sections of New York’s various newspapers have been filled with articles about the troubles of Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez.  Has it dawned on anyone that spring training has officially started and the start of the regular season is less than two months away?

Although we haven’t reported or read the last about A-Rod’s quagmire it is time to turn the corner and get our collective focus back on baseball.  The Yankees have the usual cast of characters adorning George M. Steinbrenner (formally Legends) Field, but there are also some unfamiliar faces around as well; hoping to catch the attention of the coaching staff and manager in anticipation of having their names filed away in the backs of minds to be recalled at a later, more opportune date.

One of these players is RHP pitcher Mark Melancon (pronounced Muh-lan-son).  Melancon, at 6-2 and 215 lb. has impressed the coaches, manager Joe Girardi and GM Brian Cashman early with his ability.

Melancon was drafted in 2006 out of the University of Arizona, where he still holds the school’s single season and career marks for saves, by the Yankees in the First-Year Player Draft.

Melancon was assigned to the Class-A Short-Season Staten Island Yankees where he made seven relief appearances, amassing a 0-1 record, with two saves, and a 3.52 ERA.  He helped the Yankees capture their second consecutive NY-Penn Championship.

A successful debut took a back seat for Melancon as he underwent Tommy John surgery on October 31st, which caused him to miss the entire 2007 season.

The 23-year old pitcher returned to the mound in 2008; starting with Class-A Tampa.  Although rusty at the outset of the season Melancon was a respectable 1-0 in 13 appearances.  He threw 25.1 innings, striking out 20 while walking six.  Opposing hitters had a .265 B.A. against Melancon, as he only surrendered eight earned runs for a 2.84 ERA.

The right-hander was promoted to the Class-AA Trenton Thunder in mid-May where his numbers continued to improve.  He accrued a 6-0 record and 2 saves, while fanning 47 hitters in 49.2 innings.  His SO/BB ratio was nearly 4-to-1 as Melancon gave out no more than 12 free passes.  In 19 appearances opposing hitters could only manage a .183 B.A. against him and his ERA plunged to 1.81.

At the end of July Melancon jumped up to Class-AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barrie.  There, Melancon made 12 appearances; piling up 20 innings of work.  He made the most of his opportunities as he struck out 22, and walked only 4 while going 1-1 with a save.  Opponents could only hit .162 against Melancon.  He helped the SWB Yankees to the 2008 Governors’ Cup Championship.

According to an article in today’s New York Daily News, Melancon is rated as the no. 9 overall prospect at the start of 2009 by Baseball America.

In an interview to the News Melancon gave out a ray of confidence, but not arrogance as to how good he is.

Asked if the thought he was ready for the majors Melancon replied, “I think I’m ready.  I still think I have a lot of learning to do. I’m definitely not at the level I want to be at.”

Although Joba Chamberlain’s name has been the one that’s been discussed the most as being the possible heir apparent to Mariano Rivera’s closer role when Rivera retires, Melancon is also being mentioned as another candidate who could be closing out Yankee games in the future.

However, as of now, the big reliever is taking such talk in stride.  “It’s not overwhelming, because I know it’s not true unless I make it true,” Melancon told reporters. “I think it’s able to be done, so I’m excited for that. I’m excited that people are throwing that out there, but I know it’s not true until I make it true.”

One thing Melancon and Chamberlain could have in common is the way Chamberlain debuted in 2007.  He was a late season addition to the 40-man roster and sparkled out of the bullpen to help the Yankees return to the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year.  Melancon could see that scenario happening as well.

“I can picture that,” Melancon said. “I think I have a lot to offer – my competitiveness and my ability to get it done. I feel that in any situation I come in to I have a chance to get outs and win.”

Right now Melancon has no expectations of making the opening day roster.  However, in a long season where injuries do occur Melancon knows he has to be ready at any time to fill a spot on the big club.

Girardi told reporters Melancon is “in the mix” with the other relievers, but Cashman anticipates the right-hander starting the season in Triple-A.

Nonetheless, no matter where he ends up to start 2009 Girardi complimented his young star.  “You don’t want to make too much of what you see right now because his stuff is going to get better as he goes on in spring training,” Girardi said. “I love his arm.”

Nice praise to build on for sure.

Sources: NY Daily News, ESPN, Minor League Baseball website, Scranton Wilkes-Barrie Yankees website

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