Brian Cashman made this much clear: Russell Martin will be the Yankees starting catcher in 2011, and Jorge Posada will get the bulk of his at-bats as the regular designated hitter. The backup catcher, Cashman has said, is up for grabs.
The incumbent is Francisco Cervelli, and he seems to be heading into camp as the favorite if only because the other candidates come with player development concerns. Jesus Montero and Austin Romine are among the top catching prospects in baseball, and although neither is finished developing, both seem ready to at least contribute at the big league level. Non-roster invitee Gustavo Molina probably factors into this discussion to some degree, but he seems to be an extreme long-shot.
The easy choice
Last season, Cervelli went through the sort of peaks and valleys you’d expect from a backup catcher. The peaks were a little higher and valleys a little lower than you might anticipate, but ultimately, he was productive in his role and occasionally gave the Yankees a significant boost. He wasn’t as good defensively as his minor league reputation suggested, but pitchers seemed to enjoy throwing to him and he was certainly an energetic force whether he was on the bench or in the lineup. This winter, Cervelli worked with Robinson Cano to improve his hitting, and the easy thing would be to stick with Cervelli out of spring training.
Even after a so-so season in Double-A, Romine still has plenty of believers who think he’s the Yankees true future at the catching position. His defensive upside is higher than Montero’s, and he should have more than enough bat for the position. But the fact is, Romine hit .268 with 10 home runs in Double-A last year. He didn’t get many raves for his defense either. He would have to make a huge impression to get the job.
The real temptation is Montero, arguably the top non-outfield prospect in baseball. There’s little doubt he’s already a better hitter than Cervelli, the question is whether he can do the job defensively, and whether he’ll get enough at-bats to make a big league assignment worthwhile. Montero just turned 21 years old and seemed to make significant strides in the second half of last season. Another year of regular duty in Triple-A — or at least another three months of regular duty — might do Montero a lot of good in the long run. And what’s best for Montero is ultimately what’s best for the Yankees.
A separate but related issue
The Yankees might very well decide that the big picture is too important for them to carry Montero out of spring training — frankly, they owe it to themselves to see what Martin can do as well — but the situation on April 1 doesn’t have to still be the situation on July 1. Among the Yankees most important decisions is how long they can wait for Montero, and how long of a leash they can keep on Posada and Martin. What the Yankees see in spring training might not have an impact on Opening Day, but it might very well come into play by the all-star break.
Associated Press photo of Cervelli, Mike Ashmore photo of Romine