- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Camp Comeback is just about complete.
Monday evening, as a thunderstorm washed away their second-to-last Grapefruit League game, the Yankees announced that Eric Chavez, 33 years old and six years removed from his last full season in the big leagues, had made the team as one of two reserve infielders along with Eduardo Nuñez.
It was hardly surprising -- Chavez had a terrific spring, outhitting everyone on the team for average, even the red-hot Alex Rodriguez, and showed he could still play an excellent third base and a serviceable first base -- but certainly inspiring for a player hampered by multiple back and shoulder injuries over the past five seasons, and potentially a steal for the Yankees, who waited as long as possible to be sure Chavez would make it through camp in one piece.
"That one's pretty evident with the spring that he had," manager Joe Girardi said in announcing Chavez had made the team. "We feel that he's healthy and we feel that it's a good bat on a day that we rest Alex or Tex [Mark Teixeira]. I'm really pleased with what he did."
The addition of Chavez came on the day the Yankees said goodbye for now to Jesus Montero, Justin Maxwell and Ramiro Pena, who were optioned to Triple-A Scranton; Austin Romine, optioned to Double-A Trenton; and Mark Prior, another compelling comeback story whose quest to return to the major leagues detours for now to the Class A Tampa Yankees.
They also released Ronnie Belliard, which came as no surprise to anyone, since he came in overweight, almost immediately strained a calf muscle which cost him nearly two weeks, and batted .136 after his return to action. In addition, the Yankees sold the rights to pitcher Romulo Sanchez to a team in Japan.
Chavez left the clubhouse without speaking to reporters before the announcement was made, but his spring spoke for itself. Through 17 games -- there is one more, with the Tigers, scheduled for Tuesday afternoon before the Yankees break camp, but heavy rain is in the forecast -- Chavez batted .405, with 17 hits in 42 at-bats. He also had a home run, four doubles and four RBIs. But most impressively for the Yankees, the ball jumped off his bat from the beginning of camp, a reminder of the days when he was averaging 30 home runs and 100 RBIs a year for the Oakland A's as one of baseball's premier hitting third basemen between 2000-05.
"We could see the bat speed right away," Girardi said. "We said, 'Wow, if he's healthy, he can help us.' Because, you're not going to really forget how to hit -- it's just if you're physically capable, and he looked great."
Chavez signed a minor league deal on Feb. 4 that will now pay him $1.5 million in base salary with another $4 million in bonuses based on playing time and days on the roster. A six-time Gold Glove winner at third base, the Yankees saw enough of Chavez at first base this spring to come away convinced he can back up not only Rodriguez, but Teixeira as well. Chavez could also spell Jorge Posada occasionally as a designated hitter.
Chavez's successful spring rendered Pena, who played 48 games last season as a utility infielder, expendable, a cut Girardi said was his most difficult of the day.
"It hurts me to send him down, because I understand the disappointment a player goes through when he gets sent down, and what he's done for us, and it was hard," Girardi said. "Nino's been great for us and you got to believe at some point he's gonna help us this year."
But emotional ties aside, there really was no comparison between the two players.
"You're talking about a guy that's used to hitting in the middle of an order and has been productive and has hit home runs and has driven in runs at a pretty high level," Girardi said. "So you're talking about a pretty big bat."
After several surgeries on both his shoulder and lower back, the only question the Yankees had about Chavez was his health, but without knowing his history, Girardi said, "You'd think he's just a normal player coming into camp."
Monday's transactions completed, for now, the Yankees' 40-man roster, although there are still some moves to be made. Still left unresolved are the backup catcher situation and the addition of a 12th pitcher with the expected placement of Pedro Feliciano on the disabled list with soreness behind his left shoulder.
Gustavo Molina, a 28-year-old non-roster invitee with 23 major league games on his resume, remains the front-runner to hold down the spot until Francisco Cervelli returns in approximately a month from a broken foot, and the Yankees are considering right-hander Luis Ayala, another non-roster player, and lefty Steve Garrison as replacements for Feliciano.
They may also add another outfielder if it becomes necessary to disable Curtis Granderson, sidelined for the past week with an oblique strain.
But Girardi held open the possibility the Yankees could still swing a last-minute deal for any or all of those openings before the first regular-season game Thursday afternoon against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium.
"As of right now, he is going with us [to New York]," Girardi said of Molina. "You could look at your 12th pitcher that way, too. It's just the way the game is."
13hAndrew Marchand and Wallace Matthews