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Surplus of catching talent makes Opening Day decision easy for Girardi, Yankees

February 20, 2013

With Jorge Posada now three years removed from the game, and Russell Martin pricing himself out of the Bronx, the Yankees face an Opening Day dilemma they haven’t encountered since 1989: no clear candidate for the starting catcher job.

Just five years ago, the Yankees looked lousy with catching prospects. Powerhouse slugger Jesus Montero—he of the home run swing and wobbly defense—ranked as the organization’s No. 1 position prospect by the time he was 20, and looked to be able to make everyone forget about his limited range behind the plate with power to all fields and a generous learning curve.

On the other side of the coin, defensive wiz Austin Romine had everything Montero lacked: arm precision, range, ability to read pitchers. But where Montero was a buzzworthy slugger, Romine fell into the category of “he’ll make up for it behind the plate.” Still, between the two prospects, as well as second-tier options like P.J. Pilittere, Kyle Anson, and Jose Gil all languishing in the minors, the Yankees were sure to strike gold somewhere. Besides, with their war chest of seemingly unlimited funds, a productive backstop was only a contract away.

But, as any big-league team could attest, there’s no such thing as too many catchers. Montero was famously traded away before the 2012 season for phenom righty Michael Pineda—who promptly needed major shoulder surgery and has yet to play a game for the Bombers. Romine’s bat has progressed slowly—probably more slowly than the organization had imagined—and hit a wall at the AAA level. And Pilittere, Anson, and maybe-sort-of option Jason Brown are no longer in baseball.

Yet there is good news, and plenty of it. The Yankees have been spoiled for decades now with offensive production behind the plate. From All-Star Mike Stanley, whose departure from the Bronx in 1996 met with scathing criticism, to potential Hall of Famer Jorge Posada, the organization and its fans have become accustomed to seeing their catcher in the meat of the lineup. But a defensive wall with a pinpoint arm and a rapport with the pitching staff is worth his weight in contact money—even if he flirts with the Mendoza line all season.

With those criteria in mind, the Yankees have some options for a stop-gap season, as well as a new crop of notable prospects who are gaining momentum down on the farm.

The Yankees have been particularly reluctant in past years—to some criticism—to rush top-tier prospects, particularly if no emergency need arises. Though Romine could—and should—be given a look, the organization may break camp with a tandem of familiar players behind the plate.

Francisco Cervelli has become something of a household name among Yankee fans, after his infectious energy and bulldog work ethic played a part in the team’s 2009 World Series win. The effort landed him a large chunk of playing time in 2010, as well as the reputation for being an excellent pitcher’s catcher. CC Sabathia, in particular, lauded Cervelli for his dedication.

“He wants to learn,” Sabathia said, after the duo’s second consecutive win in early 2010. “He’s always asking questions. He wants to go over the first couple of hitters of the inning every inning. I think that helps out a lot. He watches a lot of video, and he’s pretty sure of himself when he calls a pitch, so that helps.” Pitching to Cervelli, Sabathia has put together some of the best numbers of his career, with a 2.98 ERA, 8.3 K/9, and .230 opponent BA over 272 innings.

In addition to his growing prowess behind the plate, Cervelli put up a respectable .275/.341/.357 slash line from 2009 through 2011, which made his last-minute exclusion from the 2012 roster even more surprising.

Unfortunately for Cervelli, he doesn’t project to be the starting catcher of the future. He managed just a .657 OPS for the 2012 Empire State Yankees—a disappointing number for a former world champion—and he’s currently embroiled in the same BioGenesis scandal that’s implicated teammate Alex Rodriguez. But for the time being, his energy, speed, and familiarity with the staff may make him the Yankees’ best bet.

The other veteran option is Chris Stewart. A full season into his second tenure with the Bombers, Stewart has gained a reputation as a good plate-blocker with an accurate arm. He, too, found some success with Sabathia.

Offensively, Stewart wasn’t a disaster. He managed only a .611 OPS, but his woes at the plate were largely unnoticeable given his solid presence behind it. (For what it’s worth, the .611 was a career high). Stewart would likely serve as backup, given his experience in catching approximately a third of each season.

Though a Cervelli/Stewart complement when camp breaks would be a surprise to no one, there are exciting options waiting in the wings.

If Romine doesn’t get his shot out of spring training, he’ll be the first line of defense as the season progresses. Long touted for his skills behind the plate, the former second-round draft pick has been named the organization’s top defensive catcher three years in a row. One member of the front office even referred to Romine as a “plus plus defender.” It is that promise, in fact, that kept the Yankees from pursuing more expensive free-agent options like A.J. Pierzynski this offseason.

But Romine’s growth has been stunted by injury. He’s missed chunks of time over the past two seasons with back issues, limiting his play to only 120 games since 2011. Without a consistent, healthy season, Romine’s development is difficult to extrapolate. He did average a .725 OPS over parts of those two seasons. Still, given that the Yankees don’t project to carry an offensive dynamo at catcher, there will be room for experimentation. If a healthy Romine can make the big league roster, he may not want to relinquish the position.

Unfortunately for Romine, he may not have a choice. Already leapfrogging the defensive powerhouse in the Baseball America prospect rankings is 20-year-old Gary Sanchez. Sanchez came out of the Dominican Republic in 2010 with a monster signing bonus and potential to burn. Groomed in the vein of Montero, with a solid frame and power stroke, his passable defense (literally: he’s allowed 60 passed balls in 181 games) is readily overshadowed by his .286/.350/.496 career slash line. With only 245 games under his belt, Sanchez ranks as Baseball America’s #56 prospect and top power hitter in the organization. Sanchez should start the year at high-A Tampa and should progress steadily, perhaps reaching AA Trenton by mid-season. Though not projected to reach the majors until 2015, Sanchez may be the homegrown catcher needed to finally fill the Posada-shaped hole in the clubhouse.

That is, if J.R. Murphy doesn’t get there first. Though not the offensive threat that Sanchez is, Murphy, 21, is powering his way through the Yankees’ farm system with eye-popping defense. In 2012, he allowed only 13 passed balls in 97 games and threw runners out at a 32% clip. And where Sanchez had garnered criticism for his focus, Murphy has shone. He even caught the eye of the big league skipper:

“I was impressed when I saw him catch the other day,” Joe Girardi told Bradenton Herald reporter John Lembo after a 2012 spring training start. “[He has a] tremendous work ethic, very bright, knows what he’s doing.”

The hard work paid off; midway through the 2012 season, Murphy was promoted to Trenton, surpassing expectations this early in his career. And though not billed as a slugger, Murphy hit .243/.316/.386 in his split season, with nine home runs. With the organization so high on his performance behind the plate and his focus already legendary, it may be only a matter of time before his services are needed in the Bronx.

Ultimately, what the Yankees will see when they look behind the plate will be plenty of options and little need to panic. Money saved by not signing Pierzynski or the far-less-affordable Mike Napoli has been spent on veteran pitching not dependent on the experience of its backstop. Meanwhile, prospects wait at every level, developing and growing and putting pressure on those ahead of them to play at high levels. Competition is good for a player, but it’s even better for an organization. The Yankees don’t have a dilemma at all.

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