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State of the organization: Catcher

Tweet [1]

Francisco Cervelli [2]

You might remember that the Yankees traded away Jesus Montero and let Russell Martin leave via free agency. They decided to go in a defensive direction behind the plate this year, and that decision became even more defense-oriented after Francisco Cervelli got hurt and Chris Stewart’s numbers dipped. Now it seems to be a question of which direction the Yankees want to go for 2014 and beyond.

First year of arbitration
It’s pretty easy to lump these two together. They’re both considered defense-first catchers; both entering their first year of arbitration; neither one trusted as an everyday player until this season. The fact that Cervelli’s had some injury problems, has actually shown flashes of solid-for-a-catcher offensive production, and carries the stigma of a Biogenesis suspension is not enough to create a huge separation between the two. Even if you prefer one or the other, neither Cervelli nor Stewart can be considered a standout, can’t-miss option as an everyday player. But they’re the most experienced options on the Yankees roster, and unless the Yankees are planning to hand the job to a young player — or planning to make a significant acquisition — Cervelli and Stewart are at the top of the pecking order. The Yankees may very well go in a different direction, but if we’re talking about the state of the organization at this very moment, Cervelli and Stewart are the team’s top catchers. Cervelli won the starting job last season, then Stewart became the regular catcher after Cervelli’s injury. These are the known quantities. Cervelli hit .269/.377/.500 before his injury last season, and Stewart seemed to have Joe Girardi’s confidence the rest of the way. Unless the Yankees change directions, one of these two is likely to be the starter again on Opening Day.

Of course, if the Yankees do want to go a different direction, there are two options in place. Austin Romine and J.R. Murphy have basically finished their minor league development. There’s probably more work Murphy could do in Triple-A — hard to think it would hurt him to go back there after only 59 games at that level — but one of these two could, if the Yankees are ready and willing, step into a significant Major League role next season. After spending most of last season the Major League roster, Romine in particular seems as ready as he’s going to get. He hit .284/.355/.418 after July 11, showing significant offensive improvement through the course of the season. The Yankees have long been impressed with his defensive work, and he has an intriguing combination of polish and potential. He’s not a sure thing, but he’s at the point of deserving a long look. Murphy is more of a wild card, coming off a breakout season in which he hit in the upper levels of the minors and impressed the Yankees with his defensive development.

Even with Montero traded away and Romine having graduated to the big leagues, the Yankees still have quality catching depth in the system. So much that they’re already giving power-hitting catcher Peter O’Brien regular playing time at third base. Even with O’Brien’s emergence, the team’s top catching prospect is still Gary Sanchez. His season wasn’t overwhelming — .253/.324/.412 isn’t the slash line you’re looking for out of an offensive prospect — but he’s still 20 years old and he’s reached Double-A. There are still questions about his work behind the plate, but the Yankees and other scouts say he’s making progress. And there’s never been much doubt about his power potential at the plate. Make no mistake, Sanchez is far from a sure thing, but he remains one of the better catching prospects in baseball and one of the top prospects in the Yankees system.

The Yankees have been stockpiling young catchers for quite a while now, and it might be time to put that young catching into action in the big leagues. If Romine proves he can’t handle it, Murphy would be next in line. If Murphy isn’t the answer, Sanchez might be ready. If not Sanchez, there’s O’Brien. Behind O’Brien, is a 17-year-old kid in rookie ball named Luis Torrens. This are waves of catching potential coming through the system, and the question is whether the Yankees are going to stick with the familiar faces (Cervelli and Stewart), sign a short-term solution (maybe someone like Jarrod Saltalamacchia or even Brian McCann) or if they’re ready to hand the job to a guy like Romine, who got his first extended big league look this year and could be ready for a bigger role next season.

Associated Press photo; headshots of Stewart, Cervelli, Romine, Sanchez and Murphy