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Relief race Yankees' most intriguing

Relief race Yankees' most intriguing

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Joe Girardi's last days at Dolphin Stadium weren't the most amicable of partings, so perhaps it's fortunate that the Yankees' manager will have plenty to distract his attention.

With just four exhibition games remaining before the Yankees head north, the travel list from Miami to New York still has more than a few unsettled vacancies.

While the Yankees would like to start putting their "A" lineup on the field in an effort to get their chemistry brewing for the regular season, Girardi said that some of his relievers are still, improbably, in the audition phase.

"There are guys that we still need to see to make a decision on," Girardi said. "I think the bullpen is probably the hardest decision to make. Everyone's throwing so well, and that's a good problem to have."

Unfortunately for Girardi, who jokingly lamented that the league could expand the rosters, he cannot take everyone north with him. Since Mariano Rivera, Joba Chamberlain, Kyle Farnsworth and LaTroy Hawkins are assured of roster spots, three bullpen jobs remain on a club that will carry a 12-man pitching staff to combat its weary April schedule.

While Girardi estimates that there are "eight or nine" arms vying for the three spots, the greatest competition is for a right-handed middle reliever, where six viable candidates are still in the mix.

"We're getting to a point where we have to make some decisions," Girardi said.

Ross Ohlendorf and Jose Veras were on the Yankees' playoff roster last season, but that does not necessarily guarantee that they'll get to stand on the first-base line at Yankee Stadium on March 31. Brian Bruney and Edwar Ramirez had flashes of success last season in New York, while Jonathan Albaladejo was picked up in an offseason swap from Washington after he excelled there in late work.

Plus, there's the mystery of Scott Patterson, a 28-year-old with a funky delivery who has not pitched above Double-A but has done everything the Yankees have asked this spring. Patterson was 4-2 with two saves and a 1.09 ERA in 43 appearances at Trenton last season and, Girardi reasons, "I'm not a big believer that you have to have big league experience to be successful."

So how will the Yankees whittle it down? If they go by strict terms of dollars and cents, Bruney is the pitcher least likely to begin the year at Triple-A, having been signed to a $750,000 deal. But there has been no indication of that yet, despite the fact that Bruney dropped more than 20 pounds over the winter after last season, when he was 3-2 with a 4.68 ERA in 58 games.

With Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy in the starting rotation and subject to innings limits (to say nothing of the uncertainty regarding 39-year-old righty Mike Mussina), the Yankees would also like to carry a long reliever with some big league starting experience. Their choices have narrowed to Kei Igawa, Jeff Karstens and Darrell Rasner.

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Though all have made long-relief appearances, there is a thought that the Yankees would prefer to keep Igawa as a starting pitcher, even if that means he would begin the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Igawa's penchant for wildness also may preclude him from consideration, though Girardi did say that the lefty "looked the best I've seen him" after his outing against the Pirates on Sunday.

"The long man has to have the ability to throw strikes -- a lot of strikes," said Girardi, who also stressed a need to be able to retire both left-handers and right-handers.

Karstens opened the spring with the inside track and may still have it, despite a selection of shaky outings as camp has drawn to a close.

"Before today, I was feeling all right, but after today, I don't even know," Karstens said on Sunday, scattering seven hits -- five of which went for doubles -- over three-plus innings.

Unlike Rasner, Karstens is on the Yankees' 40-man roster, so he may continue to hold an advantage even though his last two weeks have not necessarily been as sharp.

"I hope I've done enough for them to feel comfortable with me, and that they can trust me as well," said Rasner, who was rolling until serving up a three-run homer to Cleveland's Andy Marte on Tuesday.

The Yankees' search for a lefty specialist has fallen upon Billy Traber, a veteran who was invited to camp on a non-roster basis but has since been added to the club's 40-man roster. Traber had not allowed an earned run until he appeared for one inning in a blowout victory against Philadelphia on Monday.

Traber's addition to the 40-man roster prompted the concession of a roster spot from fellow lefty Sean Henn, a product of the Yankees' farm system who bounced between Triple-A and New York last year. Out of Minor League options, Henn has been limited to just three spring appearances due to soreness in his pitching shoulder, but he is slated to pitch in a Minor League game on Wednesday.

"It definitely doesn't look good, but I'm 26," Henn said. "I still have to pitch somewhere, whether it's here or with another team. There's a window open here, but it's no secret I'm out of options. If I can get on the mound, it's only going to help my chances, no matter where I pitch."

More certain is the Yankees' bench, which will have four spots to open the season and appears to have solidified with the addition of Morgan Ensberg to the 40-man roster. Since Ensberg would not have to accept a Minor League assignment, he is likely to make the team as a backup corner infielder.

Ensberg would supplement the Yankees' defense, along with infielder Wilson Betemit and first baseman/outfielder Shelley Duncan. Backup catcher Jose Molina is also a lock to be on the Opening Day roster.

Outfield prospect Brett Gardner impressed both offensively and defensively in camp, and though Girardi believes Gardner can help the Yankees at some point in 2008, it isn't likely to be in April.

That leaves the bullpen as the greatest area of unfinished business, as evidenced by the fact that the Yankees were still dressing 20 pitchers as of Tuesday afternoon.

Girardi said that he expected all along to have a full house by this point in the spring, since he is also scouting the organization for callup prospects as well as for the Opening Day roster. Thus far, he said he has been pleased by the discoveries.

"I knew there'd be heavy competition for those last few spots, just from our talks over the winter," Girardi said. "It's important that you have a real good idea of what's coming up."

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

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