Traber seizing opportunity with Yanks
Journeyman emerging as favorite to be lone lefty in 'pen
TAMPA, Fla. -- In the early days of camp, when comfortable running shoes were the most valuable equipment for a Yankees starting pitcher, an unknown prankster decided to rib journeyman Billy Traber for pulling ahead of the pack in drills.
A photo of the distance runner Steve Prefontaine appeared atop the left-hander's locker, held in place by Scotch tape and bearing the scrawled message, "'Pre' ain't nothing. We've got Traber."
"I think some of the younger guys weren't too happy with me that day," Traber says now, smiling. "But I don't mind. I'm keeping it up. It's a badge of honor."
The 28-year-old has done more to move ahead of the competition as the Grapefruit League schedule has played out. Added to the Yankees' 40-man roster last week, Traber now appears to be the front-runner to win a job as the lone lefty in New York's bullpen.
"He's in the mix," Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "Does he have the team made yet? I think that's kind of premature, but he's right in the thick of it.
"We knew going into this that there'd be a lot of competition. He's earned the right to be on [the 40-man roster], but we've got a couple of weeks left."
Traber split last season between Triple-A and the big leagues in the Nationals organization, recording a 4.76 ERA in 28 appearances for Washington, including two starts. Once a first-round Draft selection of the Mets, Traber has been forced to grind through his pro career since a failed physical cost him what would have been a $1.7 million signing bonus.
Traber eventually agreed to a $400,000 deal and later bounced to the Indians organization for four years, where he'd throw a one-hit shutout over the Yankees in 2003, but spend all of 2004 on the disabled list after suffering a torn ligament in his pitching shoulder.
With so many highs and lows in the rear-view mirror, Traber said he would not take any special satisfaction from finally making it with a New York team, eight years after hopes registered so high for him on the other side of town.
"I'm at the point where I'm just happy that any city would take me," Traber said. "It'd be nice, but it'd be nice if I made any big league club. I envision it as going to work -- I guess that's a drab way of describing it -- but it's an everyday job. I just want to show up and be dependable."
In six appearances this spring, Traber has been that. He has yet to allow an earned run, though he did permit three inherited runners to score in one particularly forgettable outing. Still, Traber has faced 21 batters and retired all but three for a .143 opponents batting average, allowing no walks and striking out seven.
Of particular importance is Traber's continuing success in lefty-on-lefty situations, a role the Yankees could not fill last season. Mike Myers opened the year as the Yankees' situational left-hander and was eventually replaced by Ron Villone and Sean Henn, though neither impressed enough to be placed on the Yankees' playoff roster initially.
The role of a lefty specialist is slightly foreign to Traber, but that doesn't prevent him from believing he can be successful there. Traber said he watched Ray King closely with the Nationals last season and was staggered by how easy the veteran made it look.
"I remember watching Ray and being amazed at how quickly he could be ready," Traber said. "I think one time, I saw him throw maybe one or two pitches in the bullpen, and then he came in and got two outs, just like that. I was like, 'How did he do that?' He just knew that he was going to do that, and it was fun to watch. You just have to believe that you can do it."
Eiland said that, so far, Traber has done a good job of keeping both his fastball and breaking ball down and away to lefties, though he can also run the fastball in on batters' hands. But he still has to beat out Henn, Heath Phillips and Kei Igawa before anything is confirmed.
"I think it's early," Traber said. "All I'm really trying to do is throw strikes and make them hit the ball. I don't really look at the numbers too much. I'm really focused on just attacking the zone. I'm trying to make it look good enough that they'll swing at it."
Traber said he spent two months of his winter training with Kelly Nicholson, his former college coach at Loyola Marymount (Calif.) University. Over the years, Traber had picked up several bad habits with his mechanics, and he wanted to return closer to the form that allowed him to strike out a school-record 156 batters as a junior in 2000.
Nicholson's input having helped Traber's mechanics grow cleaner and less segmented, Traber said he feels much more fluid on the mound. It may not be perfect yet, but Traber believes it's all headed in the right direction.
That, by all accounts, seems to point directly toward New York.
"All I want to do is be another arm for them to use," Traber said. "If I don't make this team, just because you don't start with them doesn't mean you can't finish with them."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.