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THE YANKEES' prized young pitchers, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, have been badly battered, and both are gone from the rotation a month into the season. The team's best player, Alex Rodriguez, is limping around the clubhouse with a strained right quadriceps and will not return for another couple of weeks. The Yankees are hurting—but nothing threatens New York's streak of 13 straight postseason appearances more than a prolonged absence by catcher Jorge Posada.
On April 28 the Yankees took the field against the Indians without Posada in uniform, and other than a five-game suspension he served in 2001, it was the first time the Yankees had been without their catcher since Sept. 1, 1996. "A real weird, strange day, not having Jorgie around," says New York shortstop Derek Jeter. "For so long he's been our glue." On the Yankees, Posada is often overlooked, but his value to the team might never be more apparent than over the next six weeks as he recovers from inflammation in his right rotator cuff. Not only is the remarkably durable 36-year-old a potent hitter, but he also, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi says, "offers our young pitchers so much invaluable guidance."
The Yankees need only look to their AL East rival to see how the loss of a veteran All-Star catcher can devastate a club. "On our Red Sox teams Jason Varitek was indispensable," says Yankees leftfielder Johnny Damon. "Just look what happened to the team in '06 with 'Tek injured." That year Boston dropped nine games in the standings during Varitek's four-week absence with a knee injury. In 2001 Boston was in first place on June 7 when Varitek went down with a season-ending elbow injury; the Red Sox finished 13 1/2 games behind the Yankees. At a college lecture last January, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was asked to name the player he'd most like to remove from the Red Sox roster. He chose Varitek.
An imbalance of supply and demand at the position makes it impossible for the Yankees to find a viable replacement for Posada outside the organization. His backup, Jose Molina, is adequate defensively but is not nearly Posada's equal with the bat.
The Yankees, though, are desperate for stability at the position. Hughes pitched to four catchers in his first six starts and was 0--4 with a 9.00 ERA. (The righthander is now out until perhaps July with a broken rib.) Kennedy worked with three catchers in his five starts and was 0--2 with an 8.37 ERA before being sent down to the minors over the weekend.
Before his injury Posada was one of four active position players with 10 years of major league service and no time spent on the disabled list. His durability was a big reason why the Yankees signed him to a four-year, $52 million contract last November. "Even given his age and this injury, I still say that was a very good contract," says an AL general manager. "Besides A-Rod, Posada may be the most valuable Yankee."
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