Today, baseball’s last current connection to the 2000 World Series champion Yankees was quietly severed. Lefty reliever Randy Choate told WFAN’s Sweeny Murti that he was officially calling it a career, 16 years after pitching in the playoffs at age 25 for the dynasty that won a third straight title.
Choate was stuck in Triple-A last year after playing in 2015 with the Cardinals, but he was the last active player from the 2000 Yankees following Derek Jeter's retirement. It’s somewhat amusing that out of all the terrific players on that roster, a random relief pitcher survived the longest, but it’s also not surprising. Lefty pitchers tend to stick around forever, and once Choate made it through a mid-2000s fall from relevance, he was in a good position.
So with the book closed on the 2000 Yankees, one might wonder who the last active player will be from the team’s most recent champions, the 2009 club. Although only seven MLB seasons have passed since Hideki Matsui’s heroics helped the Yankees take down the Phillies, over two-thirds of the 45 men on the roster are now gone from baseball:
2009 Yankee farewells
|Age||Pos||Name||G||Last MLB game|
|Age||Pos||Name||G||Last MLB game|
Only 14 players remain who were active MLB players last year and did not retire (yes, this counts Alex Rodriguez as retired). Of the players, who has the best chance at being the last link?
Writing’s on the Wall*
These four pitchers are the longest of long shots. While Sabathia easily pitched the best of this quartet in 2016, he will turn 37 this year and has a degenerative right knees that will keep him from playing much longer. He doesn’t exactly have the body to prolong his career in the bullpen like Jim Kaat, either.
The relievers were just fortunate to be pitching in the majors at all in 2016. Wang hadn’t played since 2013, and the Royals cut him in September. He’s looking for work, and is also about to turn 37. Coke is left-handed, but he’s also not good and is off to Japan for 2017. Chamberlain received a spring training invitation to Brewers camp, which will be his first work since Cleveland let him go last July. He’s much younger at age 31, but the combination of a midseason release and no one picking him up means that the clock is clearly ticking.
*Related: Sam Smith sucks.
Gardner was the toughest player for me to put in the "unlikely" category. A decade or two ago? Speedy guys who could still play a decent outfield could hang around on MLB rosters for awhile—Otis Nixon never had an OPS+ over 100, but he played until he was 40. Nowadays though? That doesn’t really happen. Of the 377 players to appear at least once in the outfield last year, Gardner was already among the oldest 20 percent. The only ones older than 36 were Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran, Marlon Byrd, and Jayson Werth. The latter three are all more hitters than outfielders, and Ichiro is the unique Hall of Fame exception. Sorry, Gardy.
Like Chamberlain, Hughes will only be 31 in 2017, but the outlook is not brilliant for him. He’s been a 4.83 ERA disaster in the Twins’ rotation over the past two seasons, and now he’s battling injury too. Although a bullpen switch helped him briefly in ‘09, it doesn’t seem like he has the velocity to make that work anymore. Pena on the other hand is the type of jack-of-all-trades infielder who could survive, but he’s playing in Japan in 2017 and wasn’t a major-leaguer at all in 2015.
Maybe in a Reduced Role
Unlike Gardner, the Melkman’s career is more along the lines of those three other older outfielders in that his bat carries him at this point. Just last year, he hit .296/.345/.455 with a 120 OPS+ in 151 games for the White Sox. That’s a guy who could, at the very least, realistically take DH at-bats at the end of his career, too. Maybe Cabrera can turn into a Raul Ibanez-type player.
The 32-year-old Kennedy could possibly survive, as well. He was fine last year in the Royals’ rotation (85 ERA-), and that at least puts him in a better spot to transition to a relief role than Hughes. There are definitely red flags though.
The Dark Horse
Catchers with good defensive reputations can survive on big-league rosters almost as well as lefty relievers (ask David Ross and Jose Molina). Hell, A.J. Pierzynski didn’t even have that and he was on the Braves last year at age 39. The bottom line is that if Cervelli can smoothly land the transition to backup, then he could conceivably play until his late-30s, and he won’t turn 35 until 2021. He is a sneaky good candidate.
Robertson was easily the most relevant of these three relievers to the ‘09 run, but they’re all in about the same boat in terms of survival. They will all turn 32 within the first couple months of the season, and they’re all effective relievers right now, particularly Melancon. The Giants signed him to a $62 million contract that will keep him through 2020, barring a complete implosion, and he’s been one of the few consistently terrific relievers in baseball over the last five years. Robertson’s been quite good too, though the jump in his walk rate and other peripheral stats make Melancon better.
The southpaw Dunn pales in comparison to the two closers, but remember what made Choate the last surviving Yankee. The only problem is that as of 2016, lefties didn’t hit him that much worse than righties. He pitches to both for now, but in a few years he might be a LOOGY, and LOOGYs need to do better than a .702 OPS against. In 2014, Choate held lefties to a minuscule .351 OPS at age 38. That’s going to have to be around Dunn’s goal since he’s not nearly as good overall as Melancon or Robertson.
The Hall of Famer
The last of the 14 is also the best. Even if Cano’s career ended tomorrow, he would have a strong Hall of Fame case—2,210 hits, 479 doubles, 278 homers, a 127 OPS+, and 62.4 WAR with elite defense at second base for most of his 12 seasons. He also has the fortune of being signed to a monster contract. The Mariners are on the hook for $168 million over seven more years, which will take him through the 2023 campaign, when he will be 40.
That contract longevity alone is enough to make Cano the favorite here. The fact that he returned to a superstar level in 2016 only enhances his case, as he reached a career-high in homers with 39 to go along with 7.3 WAR. He’s also been unbelievably healthy throughout his career, hitting the DL just once (all the way back in 2006) and averaging 159 games per year over the past decade. Even assuming some decline and mild health risks, he’s on pace to enter the 3,000 Hit Club in 2021.
The possibility exists of Cano hitting an ugly decline and the last few years of the contract slogging along, but while he’s not a pitcher, the best bet is to go with the future Hall of Famer. Choate just barely beat Jeter anyway. Cano is sure to be around through at least 2022, and though he’s not a pitcher, he’s the safest guess.
Who do you think will be the last active 2009 Yankee?