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Martin, Sabathia making spring progress

3/7/2011

After having the opportunity to see different members of the New York Yankees in two different spring training outings, the impressions so far -- at least from a return-from-injury perspective -- can be described only as positive.

Catcher Russell Martin caught for five innings Monday against the Philadelphia Phillies, a follow-up to his five-inning catching debut (in prior appearances he served as DH only) last Friday night against the Boston Red Sox. Martin is coming off a hip fracture that ended his 2010 season prematurely and a subsequent meniscus surgery, both on his right side. As reported on the Yankees' official website, Martin had been held back from catching previously because of some residual stiffness in his knee.

Martin has said that he is pushing his knee daily to test it, and I was eager to see if it appeared he was favoring the right side in any way, offensively or defensively. The answer, quite simply, is no. Martin may not yet be running full speed but he appears to be giving full effort. An attempt to run out a ground ball today showed that he was willing to press, even if he can still improve his speed. When behind the plate, he appears comfortable in his crouch and is able to move effectively enough to block and get out of his stance quickly. Naturally the big question is how Martin will physically endure the demands of repeat performances. Unfortunately, that answer will not come during spring training but only as the season progresses. With Francisco Cervelli out for potentially a couple months with a foot fracture and Jorge Posada likely to retain his DH role, Jesus Montero, who saw backup catcher duty today, could earn that spot.

On the throwing side of the ball, Yankees ace CC Sabathia is another player returning from rehab. Beyond his right knee (meniscus) surgery, Sabathia has done some addition by subtraction, shedding a reported 25 pounds in the offseason. Surgery on the landing leg is no small issue for a pitcher since that leg absorbs the impact of the delivery and controls the body during follow-through. The strengthening and conditioning program Sabathia has undertaken is equally important as the surgery and weight loss in preserving the long-term health of his knee. While his performances this spring may not impress in the statistics department, there's no denying his physical transformation. Sabathia has started slowly before and pulled out of it; now he has the bonus of improved physical health on his side.

Some of the other notables this spring training are players who might have been considered finished in some circles. Pitcher Mark Prior, the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2001 whose name is now associated with the way shoulder injuries can derail a career, is back on the mound at the age of 30, trying to earn a spot with the Yankees. While he's not blowing the ball by anyone, he is still getting some favorable attention for his performance. More importantly, he's had several outings without incident. If nothing else, his persistence and determination are admirable.

Joining Prior in the almost-forgotten category is Bartolo Colon, who is surprising many with his performance this spring. At age 37 (and not far from 38), Colon does not have youth on his side, and injuries have severely limited him in the past few years. He has never been svelte, which may have contributed to the back injury that knocked him out for months in 2008. Prior to that season he struggled with a rotator cuff injury along with a series of other arm injuries. Colon, who did not pitch in the majors last year, spent much of 2010 strengthening his arm, according to the New York Daily News. He looked solid against the Red Sox Friday night, pitching three scoreless innings, and could earn a spot on the Yankees' roster. There's no doubt that he still carries some injury risk but he may just have something left in the tank.

Last but not least, Eric Chavez, who has seen more time on the disabled list than the active list in recent years, is also at Yankees spring training as a non-roster invitee after signing a minor league contract with the team in February. Chavez dealt with a number of predominantly soft-tissue woes during his career with the Oakland A's and never seemed to be able to get out of the injury cycle. Following unrelenting neck and back issues for the past few years, it appeared he might not be able to stay healthy enough to return.

Could things be different this year? It certainly seems that way. Chavez looks as fit and healthy as ever, and his performance thus far in spring training seems to be opening the door for an opportunity with the team. Monday he saw playing time at first base, which is likely where he will spend part of his time if he joins the roster. Chavez is hitting the ball well and certainly looks as if he owns the part. Spine problems are always at risk for recurrence and there are no guarantees that his injuries are behind him. But the key to longevity for Chavez may lie in how he is utilized. Filling in as a reserve corner infielder will limit his injury exposure and allow him ample recovery time between outings. This could be a win-win situation for a player who clearly has talent and a team whose starting corner infielders -- Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez -- may benefit from intermittent downtime.