Our next Pinch Hitter is Jordan Ozer, a 24-year-old who grew up in South Orange, N.J., went to college at the University of Wisconsin, and now works as a media relations assistant in the athletic department of the University of Arkansas. Jordan as a signed, 1952 poster of Mickey Mantle in his living room and still has his old Yankee Stadium subway route memorized.
Jordan is used to moving around, but he sees an opportunity for the Yankees to find – just maybe — some stability at a position of traditional strength for the franchise.
The offseason is nearly over, and the team with the long history of all-star backstops is looking at a gaping hole at catcher. For years the Yankees were buoyed by Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, and younger Yankees fans were spoiled by Jorge Posada’s potent bat. But as Russell Martin prepares his Pirates uniform for spring training, the current Yankees squad presents a myriad of uninspiring options for the starting catcher spot.
The Yankees are steadily marching toward their self-imposed $189-million limit, and while the number would give many clubs a large berth to work with, the New York club, as currently constructed, is forced to use some creativity. The incumbents, namely Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli, fit squarely into the “all-glove, no-bat” mold that backups have long utilized to craft lengthy professional careers. The most intriguing option for what otherwise seems to be an offensive black hole is to go on potential, install Austin Romine as the starting catcher, and see if he can run with it.
The Yankees farm system has been stacked with young backstops of late, and Romine’s all-around tools allowed for the Jesus Montero trade. While in hindsight, Montero could have been a solution to this problem, Romine’s ceiling is a higher in the combination of glove and bat.
While Romine has been in the Yankees farm system for five years, last season’s injury really hurt his development. With only 21 games at AAA, Romine is lacking in high minor league seasoning (Montero’s lingering presence kept him in Trenton longer than was needed). In an ideal world, Romine would spend another year developing in AAA while a veteran manned the plate in the Bronx, but that was last season’s plan before back trouble derailed things. With the given alternatives, there’s no reason not to give Romine the chance to cut his teeth at the big league level. His defense, which VP of Baseball Operations Mark Newman called “plus, plus,” will approximate the values that Stewart and Cervelli bring, while at least offering a semblance of being able to produce at the plate. Cervelli hit .246 in AAA in 2012. Stewart hit .241 for the Yankees. With the other question marks in their lineup, the Yankees cannot afford either of those players in the everyday lineup.
The Yankees know what Cervelli and Stewart can produce. Romine should get a big opportunity this spring, especially with Cervelli not in Tampa while he participates in the World Baseball Classic. If Romine proves he can handle himself, the Bombers should be aggressive and gamble on his upside.
The Romine decision represents more than one starting spot in the 2013 lineup. As currently constructed, the Yankees will need to rely on their youth and farm system to succeed under the $189-million mark. That requires players such as Romine to pan out, because the Yankees eventually will need replacements for some of the current veterans.
It seems ownership wants to abandon the prior strategy of big free agent splashes that got the Yankees locked into long-term contracts with Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett. This shift will only work if the Yankees get cheap production from within. That requires the homegrown Ivan Nova to hold down a spot in the starting rotation. Michael Pineda needs to get healthy and contribute. David Phelps and Manny Banuelos can become a part of the solution. Eduardo Nunez can carve out a role on the club with the tools he provides. Even further down the road, the Yankees have a wealth of impressive talent in the low minors. Between Mason Williams, Tyler Austin, Gary Sanchez and Jose Campos, the Yankees simply have to look at last year’s Charleston Riverdogs squad to envision a future New York team that is already wearing Yankees pinstripes.
Recent evidence across the league has proven that young players can make an immediate impact on winning clubs. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper not only captured the nation’s attention last year, but they were key pieces of playoff contenders. The Yankees may not have an on-the-verge superstar such as those two, but the Yankees do have a solid farm system. More importantly, they need to start relying on their young talent more than ever before.
The Yankees can start this transition this season, and it can begin with rolling the dice on Romine behind the plate.
Associated Press photo