The Yankees Catching Situation
Although this offseason has gotten off to a pretty slow start, things should be ramping up now that the Winter Meetings are upon us. The Yankees have been one of the most active teams thus far, bringing back Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Hiroki Kuroda on one-year deals. Re-signing those three pitchers were the top priorities for the Yankees this winter, and now they can shift their focus to position players. Most important of those positions is catcher, which is a big question mark now that Russell Martin has signed on with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
After he was non-tendered by the Dodgers following the 2010 season, Russell Martin signed the Yankees to be their starting catcher for 2011, which subsequently marked the end of the Jorge Posada’s reign over the position. Martin performed admirably during his first season in pinstripes, hitting .237/.324/.408 with 18 home runs over 476 plate appearances. Last season was a tale of two halves for Martin, who hit an abominable .179/.300/.348 in the first half before rebounding to hit .242/.321/.456 in the second half. Overall, Martin hit .211/.311/.403 with 21 home runs and 50 RBI over 485 plate appearances. Pretty solid for a catcher. Martin ran into some pretty bad luck last year, as evidenced by his .222 BABIP, but his ground ball and line drive percentages were in line with his career norms, so all indications are that he is not declining.
Aside from Martin’s production behind the dish, the Yankees are going to miss what he brought to the table from a defensive standpoint. Although Martin had never been revered for his ability to throw runners out or block balls in the dirt, he has proved to be excellent at framing pitches. In fact, thanks to the research provided by Mike Fast, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, we know that Martin is one of the best in the league at framing pitches. Last season, Martin got 179 more strikes called than the average catcher. It is safe to say that whoever steps in as the starting catcher for the Yankees will not come close to matching those numbers.
So, since Martin has left for the greener pastures of Pittsburgh, one has to wonder what the Yankees are going to do to replace him. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman has gone on record by saying that he believes that the team’s internal candidates – Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine and Chris Stewart – can fill Martin’s void. To me, that sounds like a pipe dream. If the Yankees do not acquire catching help from outside the organization it could turn out to be a big problem for the team in 2013.
Francisco Cervelli was the Yankees backup catcher for the 2011 season. He seemed poised to hold the same role in 2012, until the Yankees acquired Chris Stewart, who we’ll get to shortly, at the end of Spring Training. As a result, Cervelli spent the majority of the 2012 season at AAA, before getting called up when rosters expanded in September.
From 2010-2011, Cervelli hit .269/.348/.354 over 454 plate appearances as the Yankees primary backup catcher. Lack of power aside, those are pretty respectable numbers for a backup. The issue is that Cervelli is not a particularly strong defender and as a result is not the ideal person for backup role. He has thrown out 14% of baserunners in each of his two seasons as the backup catcher and is not a particularly strong receiver. Although it would not be ideal, Cervelli is probably the best person currently on the Yankees roster to assume a starting role next season. He has experience working with most of the team’s pitchers and wouldn’t be an automatic out at the plate. Cervelli’s lack of power and defensive inconsistency make him an unappealing option.
At the end of March Brian Cashman made a surprise move, sending reliver George Kontos to the Giants for catcher Chris Stewart. Stewart was acquired to be the backup, thus sending a shocked Francisco Cervelli to AAA. The move was puzzling for a few reasons. The first was that Cervelli had been the Yankees backup for two seasons and had done nothing to lose his job. The second was that Chris Stewart had done nothing to prove he would be a better option than Cervelli. Lastly, Kontos probably would have been an important piece of the 2012 Yankees, as the first reliever to be called up from AAA. It is not often that you see a solid relief prospect traded for a bat-first backup catcher with little success in the major leagues.
Stewart lived up to his billing as a glove first catcher in 2012, hitting .241/.292/.319 over 157 plate appearances, which resulted in an unfathomably bad 65 wRC+. Stewart threw out just 23% of the runners who attempted to steal against him and did not do anything that was so positive on defense to justify trading for him. All the while, Kontos proved to be a solid contributor out of the Giants bullpen, posting a 2.47 ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning over his 44 appearances. As a Yankee fan, it was pretty painful to watch Kontos this past season, knowing that he would have provided a valuable presence in their bullpen.
Stewart will come into Spring Training competing for the backup role. Something will have gone horribly wrong with the Yankees season if Stewart plays in more than 50 games in 2013.
Austin Romine has long been a top prospect for the Yankees. He was included in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects in all of baseball in both 2010 and 2011 and made his major league debut in September 2011. Before missing a large chunk of the 2012 season with a back injury, Romine was viewed as someone who could develop into a solid everyday catcher, playing good defense while potentially hitting 10-15 home runs per year. However, Romine has accrued just 86 plate appearances at the AAA level and is not someone who should be counted on to contribute at the major league level to start the 2013 season. The safe bet is for Romine to start off at AAA, but he could potentially force the Yankees hand if he puts up good numbers in the International League.
I might as well mention Eli Whiteside, who the Blue Jays claimed off waivers from the Yankees a couple of days ago. Whiteside, like Chris Stewart, is a bat first backup catcher that the Yankees acquired for the Giants. Thankfully they did not trade anything of value for him. He will not be missed.
While the Yankees internal options for catchers are unappealing, the free agent market is equally as unexciting. Mike Napoli could have been an option for the Yankees, but he has agreed to terms with the Red Sox. A.J. Pierzynski hit a career high 27 home runs for the White Sox last season, but he is about to turn 36 I would be wary of spending big dollars on a starting catcher who is that old. Not to mention he doesn’t seem like he would mesh well with the New York media.
There remains the possibility that the Yankees could do something on the trade front, but those options are dwindling as well. It seemed as if the Padres would trade Nick Hundley, but that is not going to happen now that Yasmani Grandal has been hit with a 50-game PED suspension. Carlos Santana would be a great option for the Yankees if the Indians decide to go in all out fire sale mode. However, it remains to be seen whether those two teams could match up on a potential trade. Santana’s power and patience would make him a perfect fit for the Yankees lineup, not to mention that he is just 26 years old. Regardless, the Yankees need to address their catching situation and soon, because their current in-house options leave much to be desired.