Yankees organizational depth: Catcher • 01.08.11
Let’s start a position-by-position look at the Yankees organization by looking behind the plate. It’s probably the most intriguing spot in the entire system, both because of what’s happening at the big league level and what’s coming up from the minor leagues. This has been Jorge Posada’s position for more than a decade, but that’s about to change.
In the big leagues
The transition is about to begin, and it will start with Russell Martin. Signed this winter to a one-year deal, Martin says he’s healthy and that he’s shifted his workout routine to try to regain the power that made him a coveted young player just three years ago. Martin is a short-term fix, but at 27 years old, he could have some long-term upside if he returns to form. Can’t count him out beyond this season. Francisco Cervelli is, of course, poised to return to his backup role, while Posada is still around for occasional starts behind the plate. If you count Posada, it seems entirely possible that the Yankees will carry three catchers at all times this year.
On the verge
The catching future of the Yankees starts with Jesus Montero. He’s the most highly touted player in the system, and he’s one step away from the big leagues. There are still questions about his ability to catch, but he seems to convince more and more people each year. He might never be great, but his defense might play enough to keep his bat in the lineup without clogging the DH spot. Behind him is Austin Romine. The Yankees expected him to open this season in Triple-A before the Martin signing. Now it’s entirely possible Romine will be bumped back to Double-A, at least to start the year. He was good but didn’t exactly dominate that level last year — .268/.324/.402 and the league’s worst caught stealing percentage — so a return isn’t exactly a waste of time. Gustavo Molina, who has some big league time, was signed as a minor league free agent and could help in a pinch. He’ll likely start the season coming off the bench in Triple-A.
Deep in the system
It’s unusual that a minor league system would have the Yankees combination of talent and depth at the catcher position. Montero is obviously the star of the show, but 18-year-old Gary Sanchez could be a similar talent. He’s considered a better defensive prospect, and although he doesn’t have quite Montero’s power, he does have considerable pop in his bat. He’s an elite prospect himself. JR Murphy’s ultimate position is unclear, but he also has enough bat to be worth following. Kyle Higashioka doesn’t generate nearly the same buzz, but he was the youngest player invited to big league camp last year. He’s on the radar.
Organizational depth chart
My own rough guess. It’s far too early for the Yankees to settle on who will be where next season.
New York: Russell Martin
Scranton/WB: Jesus Montero
Trenton: Austin Romine
Tampa: Kyle Higashioka
Charleston: Gary Sanchez
There are six players who could, given the right circumstances, get some big league time at catcher this season: Martin, Cervelli, Posada, Montero, Molina and Romine. All of those come with different levels of concern, but that’s also a lot of depth at a position that’s often very thin.
Further down in the system, Murphy figures into this depth chart mix somewhere — either Tampa or Charleston — but he’ll also see some time at the infield and outfield corners. He shouldn’t be overlooked, even in this catching-rich system. Tyler Austin was the top catcher selected by the Yankees in last year’s draft (13th round), but it seems uncertain whether he’ll stay behind the plate as a pro. He played only two games last season before an injury. Those two games were at DH and first base.
Associated Press photo of Posada, headshots of Martin, Montero and Murphy
Now that Russell Martin is on the roster, it’s likely both Jesus Montero and Austin Romine will open the season the minor leagues. In theory, each should each be in Triple-A, but that’s a logjam the Yankees don’t want.
“They need to catch, so that’s something we’ll deal with if we get there,” vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman said. “I wouldn’t want them to split right now.”
Montero and Romine split catching duties in the lower levels, but at this point, both need to get used to catching every day. They also need repetition behind the plate so that they improve defensively.
Obviously the Yankees won’t set anything in stone right now, but the arrival of Martin could force Romine back to Trenton, where last season he hit .268 with a second half that was worse than his first. I’m sure he’d rather move forward, but repeating the level might not be a waste of time.
• So far so good with Brandon Laird’s work in the outfield. Newman said the Yankees are convinced he can play the corners. Left field at Yankee Stadium might be a little spacious for him, but they think he could play right field in the Bronx, and he could play left in most parks. “He’s going to do well enough out there that he’s going to be an option,” Newman said. The Yankees still think Laird is better defensively at first and third, but he could be a legitimate four-corners option as soon as 2011.
• For whatever it’s worth — and it might not be worth much — I was impressed with Laird’s glove when I saw him in spring training. Much better than I was expecting. He made some pretty nice plays at third.
• If the Yankees feel the need to move one of their prospect starting pitchers into the Major League bullpen next season, they can make that adjustment quickly. There’s no need to make that switch out of spring training. “When they get to Triple-A, they don’t need a full year doing that,” Newman said. “They need a month or two of adjustment. They still need innings. You don’t want to limit innings by putting them prematurely in the bullpen.”
• Pretty standard situation for all of the players so far invited to camp on minor league deals. Neal Cotts is a slight exception because of his considerable big league experience and the fact he’s coming back from injury. “It’s a rehab deal with him,” Newman said.
• Romulo Sanchez is out of options. He’ll need to make the big league roster or pass through waivers this spring. I believe — though I forgot to ask — that Sanchez has been designated for assignment once before, meaning even if he clears, he could opt for free agency rather than accept a minor league assignment.
• Last month the International League transactions listed Matt DeSalvo having been assigned to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It’s not true. The Yankees have not re-signed him.
• One lower-level note: Catching prospect J.R. Murphy will continue to get the bulk of his time behind the plate, but he’ll also see time at third base and right field next season. He didn’t hit much last season, but the Yankees believe in his bat and believe he’s athletic enough to play different positions. They haven’t decided whether he’ll be in Charleston or Tampa next year.
Let’s go heavy on prospects today, shall we? This is Baseball America’s Top 30 Yankees prospects heading into this season, listed with each player’s rank at the beginning of the season and the level where he finished the season.
No. 1 Jesus Montero
After a rocky start to the season, Montero turned things around in the second half and could fight for a big league job in spring training. He remains one of the elite prospects in baseball, with the only significant questions being where he’ll play in the field.
No. 2 Austin Romine
Romine dropped to sixth in this year’s rankings, but I’m not sure his ceiling or expectations have fallen. He had a kind of Derek Jeter-type season, starting strong and finishing strong, with three rough months in the middle. He’s in the Arizona Fall League now, and it’s easy to forget that he hasn’t turned 22 yet. Still very highly regarded, but he was passed on Baseball America’s list by young players and injured players whose stock soared after strong seasons.
No. 3 Arodys Vizcaino
Traded to the Braves
The big prospect in The Boone Logan Trade had a 2.74 ERA between two Class-A levels this season, but he was shutdown with an elbow injury.
No. 4 Slade Heathcott
Low-A center fielder
Got to Charleston at the start of June, and he might have lost a little ground in the prospect standings — he hit .258 with 101 strikeouts — but it’s hard to read too much into a 19-year-old’s first season of pro ball. He still in Baseball America’s Top 10 for the orgnization.
No. 5 Zach McAllister
Traded to Cleveland
This was the cost for two months of Austin Kearns. Had he stuck around, McAllister probably would have fallen out of the Top 10 after a 5.09 ERA in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He was certainly overshadowed by several other upper-level pitchers.
No. 6 Manny Banuelos
Double-A left-handed starter
After a healthy second half that took him from High-A to Double-A, Banuelos is living up to expectations. Building up his workload seems to be the next step in his development. He’s in the Arizona Fall League right now and could pitch himself to the cusp of the big leagues next season. At 19 years old, he’s the youngest of the Yankees Killer B pitching prospects.
No. 7 Gary Sanchez
He’s been compared to Montero, except with more defensive tools. That’s why he moved all the way to No. 2 on this year’s Baseball America list. There is a ton of talent, but also a long way to go.
No. 8 J.R. Murphy
In so many ways, Murphy is “the other” catching prospect in the Yankees system. He’s only 19 years old — one year older than Sanchez — and he already held his own in Charleston. The power started to show in the second half.
No. 9 Jeremy Bleich
Injured Double-A left-handed starter
Stock took a hit because of shoulder surgery. He made only eight starts for Trenton. Hard to learn much about him from this season.
No. 10 Andrew Brackman
Double-A right-handed starter
This season might have been the best-case scenario for Brackman, the towering right-hander who had Tommy John surgery before throwing a single professional pitch. Brackman has always been a high-end talent, but he lived up to those expectations with a healthy and much-improved second season.
No. 11 Bryan Mitchell
Short-season right-handed starter
Opened in extended spring training, then pitched in the Gulf Coast League and got up to Staten Island in September. Still young, and Rookie Ball opponents hit .190 against him. Obvious potential. Obviously young.
No. 12 Mike Dunn
Traded to Atlanta
Another part of The Boone Logan Trade, he pitched his way to Atlanta but the Yankees might have gotten the better of the two young lefties in that trade.
No. 13 Corban Joseph
Double-A second baseman
Terrific numbers in Tampa sparked a second-half call-up to Trenton, where Joseph struggled with his first taste of upper-level pitching. Could play second or third base. Nothing especially flashy, but he lived up to expectation and might have exceeded it with his promotion.
No. 14 Eduardo Nunez
Major League shortstop
Nunez had to prove that 2009 was not a fluke, and he did just that with a terrific Triple-A season that ended with a call-up to New York and a late spot on the postseason roster. He hit .289 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but also showed an improved glove. That combination pushed him into the Yankees Top 10.
No. 15 Mark Melancon
Traded to Houston
Sent to the Astros in the Lance Berkman deal, Melancon simply never made that final step with the Yankees. He pitched pretty well in 20 appearances for the Astros.
No. 16 Ivan Nova
Major League right-handed starter
The Yankees always liked Nova’s potential, but he developed slowly until a strong 2009 season that landed him a spot on the 40-man. Now he’s a candidate for a spot in the back of the big league rotation. He’s the most advanced of the Yankees many upper-level pitching prospects.
No. 17 D.J. Mitchell
Triple-A right-handed starter
Moved into the Yankees Top 20 prospects, then got an invitation to big league camp, then pitched his way from Double-A to Triple-A. He generated better than a 2-to-1 ground out to fly out ratio in Double-A, then had a 3.57 ERA in three Triple-A starts. Overshadowed by some teammates, but he had a very nice season.
No. 18 Melky Mesa
High-A center fielder
He obviously did something right because now he’s on the 40-man roster. The MVP of the Florida State League has legitimate power and speed, but he also strikes out a ton and this year’s .260 average was actually his career-high. A complete wild card in this system.
No. 19 Kelvin DeLeon
Short-season right fielder
Stock might have slipped through a .236 average with six home runs and 80 strikeouts. Just turned 20, so there’s plenty of room to grow, but also a long way to go.
No. 20 Jose Ramirez
Low-A right-handed starter
A good arm lurking in the lower-levels of the Yankees minor league system, he had a 3.60 ERA with 105 strikeouts in Charleston this season. For now, he exists in the shadows of the pitchers ahead of him, but he’s certainly not an unknown. He’s a legitimate prospect in his own right.
No. 21 Graham Stoneburner
High-A right-handed starter
Leading into this season, Stoneburner was a favorite among writers and bloggers who closely follow the Yankees minor league system. He proved those believers right with a 2.41 ERA between Charleston and Tampa. He could be one of the fastest-rising stars in the organization, and there is considerable speculation that he could eventually end up in the bullpen, making ascent even faster.
No. 22 David Adams
Injured Double-A second baseman
Off to a .309 start in Trenton, Adams’ season was cut short by an ankle injury that cost him the bulk of the year and might have cost the Yankees a shot at Cliff Lee. I tend to lump Adams and Joseph together as Double-A guys able to play second or third. He seemed to be showing a lot this season, but it’s hard to make much of 39 games.
No. 23 Caleb Cotham
Cotham should have been in Charleston, but a pair of surgeries left him unable to pitch in an actual game this season. He has only eight professional innings to his name.
No. 24. Hector Noesi
Triple-A right-handed starter
Noesi had pitched only nine games above Low A when the Yankees put him on the 40-man roster this season. That said a lot about their expectations, and Noesi lived up them with a season that catapulted him into Baseball America’s Top 10. From High-A to Double-A to Triple-A, he could be next year’s Ivan Nova.
No. 25 David Phelps
Triple-A right-handed starter
There’s a common theme among most of these back-end starting pitchers: Except the injured Cotham, they were all outstanding. This was Phelps’ second full season, and he finished it with a 3.07 ERA in 12 Triple-A outings.
No. 26 Adam Warren
Double-A right-handed starter
Kind of like a one-year-younger version of Phelps, Warren had a 3.15 ERA in 10 Double-A starts after opening the year with a 2.22 in Tampa. The upper-level pitching depth in this system is incredible, as evidenced by the fact neither Phelps nor Warren deserved a spot among the Yankees Top 10 prospects.
No. 27 Kevin Russo
Major League utility
Russo’s value is in his ability to do a lot of things well. He served that role perfectly as a call-up who shifted to left-field when the Yankees were searching for outfield help. Nothing flashy, but when he was getting regular at-bats, he was contributing. He could easily play that same role next season.
No. 28 Dellin Betances
Double-A right-handed starter
This is the biggest leap of the bunch, and his jump into the Top 10 had as much to do with his health as his performance. Betances has always been a premier talent, but this year he got healthy and stayed healthy through a dominant second half. Expectations are sky
high again. He just has to stay off the disabled list this time.
No. 29 Jairo Heredia
High-A right-handed starter
Kind of like Nova in 2008 and Noesi in 2009, the Yankees have to decide whether to protect Heredia from the Rule 5 or take their chances that an unproven but talented young pitcher will sneak through. Heredia just turned 21, but he pitched just six times above Low A this season. Opponents there hit .359 against him.
No. 30 Jamie Hoffmann
Rule 5 pick sent back to Dodgers
The Yankees were clearly never planning to bring back Brian Bruney this offseason, so they traded him away for the right to draft Hoffmann. He hung around spring training for a while, but was ultimately sent back to the Dodgers. He hit .310 with eight home runs, 17 steals and 36 doubles in Triple-A.