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State of the organization: Catcher

Tweet [1]

Brian McCann, Joe Girardi [2]

We did this “state of the organization” thing earlier in the winter as well, but it seems to be worth doing again now that the offseason is coming to a close and spring training is right around the corner. We’ll take some time the next few days to go position-by-position through the Yankees system, looking at where the team stands as it heads into camp. Let’s start behind the plate.

McCann [3]Top of the depth chart: Brian McCann
Backup options: Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, J.R. Murphy
Also coming to camp: Gary Sanchez, Francisco Arcia, Jose Gil, Peter O’Brien
Deeper in the system: Luis Torrens, Isaias Tejeda

By signing Brian McCann to a five-year deal — with an option for a sixth — the Yankees solidified a position that caused intense frustration last season. The Yankees liked Chris Stewart behind the plate, but he wasn’t nearly the offensive catcher this franchise had grown accustomed to, and Austin Romine got off to such a slow start in his first extended look in the big leagues that he never took advantage of what should have been a wide-open opportunity. Now the Yankees have McCann, one of the game’s best offensive catchers, and a guy who seemed to take on a significant leadership role during his time in Atlanta. The position is his for the foreseeable future, but the Yankees still have a handful of promising young catchers who could be big league ready in the next few years.

Gordon Beckham, Austin Romine [4]Lingering question: Who’s McCann’s backup?
Based on his experience, I suppose Francisco Cervelli has to be the favorite to become the Yankees No. 2 catcher. Before last season’s hand injury, Cervelli was actually putting together a wildly impressive season both at the plate and behind it. That said, he does the Biogenesis suspension hanging over him, and Romine was beginning to emerge by the end of last season.

Worth watching this spring: J.R. Murphy
For now, Murphy seems like a long shot to break camp on the big league roster — probably heading to Triple-A to play every day and build off last year’s strides — but Murphy also seems to have a higher ceiling than either Cervelli or Romine. Of all the guys who have routinely shown up on this winter’s organizational top 10 prospect rankings, Murphy’s the one who’s almost certainly ticketed for Triple-A. You could certainly make the case that he’s the most advanced true prospect in the system. The Yankees were thrilled with his improvement’s last season, now he has a chance to really make a statement about just how good he could be.

Best-case scenario: McCann becomes a Hall of Famer
The best-case scenario is really, really good. At just 29 years old, McCann already has 176 home runs as a catcher. He’s a seven-time All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger, and now he’s moving into a ballpark that should play to his strengths. If things work out extremely well, the Yankees will have a middle-of-the-order run producer for the next half decade, making Sanchez either a potent DH or a valuable trade chips if lives up to his offensive potential.

Worst-case scenario: Backups in the lineup (again)
In this ballpark, given his offensive track record, it’s hard to imagine McCann being a total disappointment with the Yankees. Even if he’s not an all-world hitter, he should be reasonably productive. Instead, the nightmare situation involves McCann’s health. He played in only 102 games last year, and he’s had more than 500 at-bats in a season only twice (never more than 509). He had a strained adductor late last year, had shoulder surgery at the end of the 2012 season, and a strained oblique in 2011. Nothing overwhelming, but enough to make health at least a mild concern.

Keep an eye on this year: Peter O’Brien
Of course everyone is going to watch Gary Sanchez, if only because there’s nearly universal agreement that he’s the top prospect in the system. There are still plenty who doubt his ability to stick behind the plate, but there’s a lot of potential there. That said, O’Brien is coming off a breakout year in which he destroyed Low-A pitching, and continued to slug quite a bit in High-A. The Yankees have given O’Brien quite a bit of time at third base, but they say he’s still considered a catcher. It’s worth monitoring whether O’Brien stays the behind the plate (and whether he keeps hitting against upper-level pitchers).

Associated Press photos