This storyline began coming together in 2010 when Jorge Posada made just 78 starts at catcher. At that point, the Posada era was coming to an end. The year after, Posada was a full-time designated hitter and Russell Martin was behind the plate. The year after that, Posada was retired, Martin was back for one more year, Jesus Montero was traded and Austin Romine was hurt. Now it’s 2013 and not only are Posada and Montero gone, but so is Martin, and Romine has only 19 at-bats of big league experience. The catching position was, not so long ago, seen as an overwhelming organizational strength, but it is now a position without a proven option at the big league level.
Chris Stewart/Francisco Cervelli
Still not arbitration eligible
Back in 2010, because Posada was hurt for a while, Cervelli actually started 80 games behind the plate. It is — by quite a bit — the most single-season, big league starts for any catcher currently in the Yankees organization. Stewart started 51 games with the Giants in 2011 and Bobby Wilson started 58 games for the Angels last season. It’s silly to suggest any one of those three is not a big league catcher because, the fact is, all three have played supporting roles for pretty good major league teams. But it’s worth wondering whether any one of them deserves to be a big league regular. It’s also worth wondering whether the Yankees will be able to bring in another veteran — Rod Barajas, Kelly Shoppach and Yorvit Torrealba are among the recognizable names still on the market — to compete for the job. If not, Stewart and Cervelli seem to be the co-favorites, unless…
On the verge
Brian Cashman has said several times that he still expects Austin Romine to open the season in the minors. Romine missed most of last season with a back injury, and he has just 21 games of Triple-A experience, so there’s logic behind the idea of Romine having something to learn from another trip to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. There’s also logic in the idea of giving him a shot in New York, and Cashman has acknowledged that his expectations could change depending on the way things play out in spring training. We saw late in 2011 that Joe Girardi seems to like Romine, and the organization seems to believe in his defensive abilities. Plans can change based on necessity, and with no can’t-miss solution in-house, Romine has a chance to prove that his time has come.
Deeper in the system
Even without Montero, the Yankees still have one of the top catching prospects in the game. Gary Sanchez hit his way out of Charleston last season, and after a slow start in Tampa, he came on strong in the month of August to finish with a .279/.330/.436 slash line in High-A. Not bad for a kid who just turned 20 in December and has a real chance to stick behind the plate. Long-term, the Yankees best case scenario at catcher is still awfully good. Somewhere between Romine and Sanchez is J.R. Murphy, another offense-first catcher who stayed behind the plate last season despite the fact he’s dabbled at third base in the past. Coming up behind Sanchez is 2012 second-rounder Peter O’Brien. I haven’t talked to a single person in the organization about him — still a long way to go before he’s in the big league discussion – but online scouting reports suggest O’Brien has a big bat and a big arm but maybe too big of a body to stay behind the plate. It’s worth mentioning Isaias Tejeda, who had a big offensive year in 2011 but hit just .187/.267/.308 in Staten Island last season.
On the move
In 2011, two of the Yankees top seven picks were initially labeled as catchers, but both Greg Bird (fifth round) and Austin Jones (seventh round) have since moved to first base. Bird caught early last season, but Mark Newman confirmed this morning that Bird is strictly a first baseman going forward. Despite Posada having proven the potential impact of an offense-first catcher, the Yankees have preferred defensive options in recent years, and now they seem willing to start an all-glove, no-bat catcher if necessary. That makes it all the more important that guys like Murphy, Sanchez and O’Brien prove themselves defensively. They’re going to have to legitimately catch to still be labeled as catchers. It would, however, be interesting to see a guy like Murphy continue to branch out defensively. Scouts seem to like his bat, and if either Romine or Sanchez is going to take hold of the everyday catching job, Murphy could — in theory — have his impact as an unusual sort of utility man, one who can play the four corners and also catch occasionally (a version of Ryan Doumit, essentially).
What to watch
Look no further than big league camp. The most interesting developing situation behind the plate is the Yankees short-term decision for the major league club. Are they really going to give Stewart or Cervelli everyday at-bats? Can Romine force his way into the picture? Is anyone else coming to camp to fight for the job? Of course Sanchez’s development will be pivotal, but the big league job is a fascinating storyline that will have an immediate resolution one way or the other.
Associated Press photo; headshots of Stewart, Cervelli, Romine, Sanchez and Murphy