|Mark Melancon: The man who would have been Mo||03.13.12 at 3:06 pm ET|
FORT MYERS, Fla. — It has been a quiet spring for Mark Melancon. The Red Sox acquired the 26-year-old — who spent 2011 closing for the Astros — early in the offseason, but ever since the team followed that move with another to acquire Andrew Bailey from the A’s, Melancon has moved into the shadows.
With Bailey on board, the expectation immediately became that the former A’s closer would be the successor to Jonathan Papelbon. Melancon was thought of as the likely setup man.
Of course, while Bailey has been unflinching in the idea of following up a closing great in Papelbon, Melancon has some experience in that peculiar art as well. After all, Melancon was once viewed as the potential successor to Mariano Rivera as the Yankees closer.
Melancon was a dominant closer for both the University of Arizona and Team USA during his college career. In 2006, he was being considered a potential first-round talent before he suffered an elbow injury in the middle of his junior year that shut him down and squashed his draft stock.
Still, the Yankees were in the process of flexing their financial muscle in the draft. They selected Melancon in the ninth round but gave him a second-round bonus ($600,000).
Though Melancon would need Tommy John surgery for his elbow condition in late 2006, he came back in dominating fashion in 2008, marching through three levels of New York’s system.
By the next spring training, he was not only on the Yankees’ radar for a big league call-up, but there was even discussion that Melancon might be the heir apparent to Rivera — then in the middle of a three-year contract that ran through 2010 — as the Yankees closer.
“That was talked about,” Melancon said. “I guess it’s neat, but it doesn’t mean anything until you’re there and you’re doing it. It’s an action.”
That said, Melancon did not shy from the notion. After all, he wanted to close in the big leagues, and if he wanted to fulfill that ambition as a member of the Yankees, he would have to be comfortable with the idea of following Rivera in claiming responsibility for the ninth inning.
“I think that’s good talk. It never got to my head, because I knew it wasn’t reality yet. But when things are said like that, I think it’s a positive thing,” Melancon said. “That’s the direction I wanted to be on. I had those ambitions and goals to make that happen, but it was so far away that a lot of things could happen before then.”
Indeed. After his outstanding 2008 season in the minors (2.27 ERA with 89 strikeouts and 22 walks in 95 innings), Melancon posted a 2.89 ERA with a 54-to-11 strikeout-to-walk rate in 53 Triple-A innings in 2009, earning three call-ups to the big leagues that year.
The following season was a bit of a down year for Melancon in Triple-A as he dealt with some command struggles. That year, he was dealt by the Yankees to the Astros for Lance Berkman, a deal that gave Melancon the opportunity to stake out a more permanent residence in the big league bullpen.
And so, at a time when it appears that Rivera may be entering his last season, Melancon is no longer in the Bronx. Nonetheless, while the soft-spoken reliever with a taste for danger has moved through Red Sox camp with little fanfare, he nonetheless looms as a potentially significant late-innings presence in the American League East.
Melancon forged a 2.85 ERA with 8.0 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.1 free passes per nine while in the Houston bullpen, marks that convinced the Sox to part with Kyle Weiland and Jed Lowrie for him this past offseason. Now a member of the Red Sox, Melancon — who tried unsuccessfully to take lessons in cutting his fastball from Rivera, only to pick up a variation of the pitch on his own last year in Houston — looks forward to the opportunity to apply some of the lessons that he learned from the greatest closer in baseball history during his time with the Yankees to an effort to beat his former club.
“Mo’s pretty quiet. He doesn’t close himself off, but he’s quiet. I wouldn’t say he’s jumping at the opportunity to talk to guys, but he was going to help you out,” Melancon said. “I learned a lot from [Rivera], from how he’s so even-keeled. From pitching to different things off the field, he’s a good mentor, for sure.”
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