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02/22/09 6:30 PM EST

Melancon savors experiences at camp

Yanks prospect has bright future if spring audition any indication

TAMPA, Fla. -- The pitch zipped out of Mark Melancon's hand and sailed inside, producing the sickening thwack of big league lumber instantly becoming a useless piece of junk.

From behind the batting cage, Derek Jeter cackled and taunted the bat's former owner, Robinson Cano, yelling, "Get him, Mark, get him!"

If the plan progresses as expected, Yankees fans might soon have the same opportunity to cheer on the hard-throwing 23-year-old right-hander.

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While sports radio jockeys continue debating if Joba Chamberlain really is best served by life as a starting pitcher, Melancon has become the readiest available answer to this eternal question: Who will replace Mariano Rivera as the Yankees' closer?

"I think it's able to be done, so I'm excited for that," Melancon said. "I'm excited that people are throwing that out there, but I know it's not true until I make it true."

With only a season and a half of professional experience, Melancon knows that the Yankees aren't about to hand him the task of replacing a legend. But Melancon believes he is in Spring Training competing for a Major League bullpen job, and the soft-spoken Coloradoan is not shy about stating his designs of making it to New York in 2009.

"I knew this year would be a good opportunity for me to possibly get in and have a shot at making the team," Melancon said. "I think I'm ready. I still think I have a lot of learning to do. I'm definitely not at the level that I want to be at."

Melancon said that he was helped by attending camp last year, even though he had no chance of making the big league club -- not coming off of Tommy John elbow surgery, which cost him all of the 2007 campaign. That familiarity is boosting him, as he can find his way around the clubhouse and spot faces he recognizes.

"I feel comfortable here," Melancon said. "I don't have to get to know everybody. I kind of know what it's about a little bit. That aspect of it is easier."

When the Yankees headed north for their maiden campaign under manager Joe Girardi, Melancon hung around in Tampa, appearing in 13 Florida State League games before earning promotion to Double-A Trenton, where he spent most of the season.

Wrapping up by helping Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to a championship title, Melancon combined to throw a total of 95 innings in 44 games, compiling a 2.27 ERA between the three levels and increasing his walk-to-strikeout ratio at each checkpoint.

It took him a while to find his location and harness his stuff coming off surgery, but by June, Melancon said he was on a roll.

"Every day, I'm happy my arm feels good," Melancon said. "You take that for granted if you're not hurt. Once you get hurt, you realize how important it is. Every day I am thankful for that."

For the purposes of 2009, the late-inning mix is expected to be filled more by the likes of Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte than Melancon, but Girardi is not ruling anything out.

"We have a lot of very good arms in camp, but [Melancon] did very well last year and he's got good stuff," Girardi said.

But good enough to replace Rivera? That will be a tall order, no matter who it is assigned to. Rivera isn't about to hang up his trademark cutter, but he acknowledged this spring that the end is coming. When it inevitably does, Melancon seems as good a bet as any to fill the vacancy.

"I think we'd like to see him get his feet wet before we start talking about that," Girardi said. "Those are extremely big shoes to fill. But he's got a chance to learn. He's got a chance to be around a lot of big leaguers here and a lot of guys that have a lot of experience. That's good for him."

Melancon seems to be taking advantage, tapping those veteran sources for their wisdom. He said he spent some of the 2008 Grapefruit League discussing pitching with Rivera, lauding him for his willingness to share tidbits of his craft. The conversation has continued this spring.

"Mo is awesome," Melancon said. "Obviously on the field, he's great. But off the field, he's a standup person and you can see that by the way he carries himself. That was fun for me to try and get to know him. What I realize about the older guys -- [Andy] Pettitte and Mo -- they just know the game like the back of their hands."

"He's got a chance to learn. He's got a chance to be around a lot of big leaguers here and a lot of guys that have a lot of experience. That's good for him."
-- Joe Girardi, on Mark Melancon

Jorge Posada caught Melancon during his batting practice session Sunday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, offering rave reviews. Jeter may have crowed when Cano splintered his lumber, but Jeter also cut and missed at two pitches from Melancon, grinning widely after the second one made him look silly.

"His ball cuts, it sinks, it's got late life to it," Girardi said. "That usually translates into swings and misses, and not solid contact."

Posada said that Melancon's two-seamer was even more impressive than his 12-to-6 curveball, widely regarded as his strikeout pitch. Posada said that Melancon's two-seamer cut to lefties -- the reason Cano's bat was taken out of service -- and that the four-seamer was the one that prompted Jeter to flash his pearly whites.

Viewing the Yankees' bullpen mix, Posada does not seem to expect Melancon will be on the first-base line April 6 at Baltimore. But it seems safe to wager that he'll have his share of Opening Days if everything continues on this track, projecting as a late-inning reliever or closer type.

"We'll see how he progresses," Posada said. "I think they don't really want to rush him right now. They want him to get a full year in and see what happens. But he's got a bright future. There's no doubt about that."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.