The Yankees catching situation: slim meets none

Patrick Smith

Russell Martin made me appreciate Jorge Posada more. Chris Stewart made me appreciate Russell Martin. If someone makes me appreciate Chris Stewart, I’m done.

Jorge Posada didn't get to go out on top. There was no Posada day at Yankee Stadium. He didn't walk off the field to thundering applause one last time in front of family, ex-teammates and fifty thousand screaming New Yorkers. He was relegated to DH-duty in his final season, though he swore he could still catch, and he never seemed to see eye-to-eye with Joe Girardi once his former back-up took over as manager in 2008.

Posada was a slugger - a career .848 OPS and a 123 wRC+ place him among the very best offensive backstops of all time - but Johnny Bench behind the plate he was surely not. An infielder in the minors, catching never seemed to come naturally to him. His reflexes were slow, he didn't block the plate and by the end of his career, he was getting run on more than most treadmills. Girardi wanted well, Joe Girardi back there - nimble and instinctual, a defense first catcher with an arm. You can't help but wonder if 2013 has made him rethink that.

Like many other Yankee fans, I'm guilty of underrating Posada throughout his outstanding career. I loved him - I cheered him - I knew what five rings, five All-Star selections and a third place MVP finish meant. But until I realized what other teams go through at catcher, year after year, I don't think I ever really appreciated him. I'm starting to wonder if I under-credited his replacement, Russell Martin, too - maybe because every time he hit a home run, John Sterling yelled something in French. Had it been in English I may have understood the appeal. Martin's Yankee career was sketchy. His first month here was great, as was his last, but he was mostly an offensive zero in between. In 215 games between May 1st, 2011 and August 31st, 2012, Martin hit just .226/.307/.402. He iced only 27.5% of potential base stealers as a Yankee - league average, but a rung below his 31% career norm.

Regardless of his struggles, Martin would have looked pretty close to perfect compared with what we saw don the tools of ignorance in 2013. I wasn't the least bit discouraged when the Yankees refused to match Russ's two-year, $17 million offer from the Pirates on November 30th of last year. That's a decent sum for a 30-year-old catcher who hadn't managed a really good year since 2008. Brian Cashman would find someone more productive who cost less...I was sure of it. But then December passed...and January. Spring training opened with Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart and not much else.

To say that Yankee catchers were bad this season is an understatement of gargantuan proportions. As a unit, the motley collection posted a .213/.289/.298 line, their .587 OPS a full .111 behind the AL average of .709. After Cervelli's early season injury and his eventual Biogenesis suspension, Stewart stepped up to become the main culprit of futility. His 58 wRC+ was tenth lowest among major league batters with 300 or more plate appearances and his .272 slugging percentage was the worst. Stewart accomplished all that while developing a propensity for letting fastballs down the middle go to the backstop. His twelve passed balls were just one off the major league lead, and he played in 29 fewer games than the leader, J.P. Arencibia. Stewart's OPS after the All-Star break was a pitcher-like .488, but still, he started 64 percent of the Yankees' games in that time.

This isn't a Chris Stewart sucks article - he was asked to do things this year that he's simply not capable of. But he cannot catch for the Yankees in 2014. Not for 109 games...not for 50...not for one. Playing Stewart is some kind of drug for Girardi - the way pitching Scott Proctor was for Joe Torre - and he needs to get clean, cold turkey. No matter how limited the Yankees' options are - and they are limited - there has to be someone better.

There are in-house choices. Cervelli got off to a hot start this year, hitting .269/.377/.500 in April before 2013 got him. While those numbers weren't BABIP-inflated, Cervelli's career wRC+ of 93 and the 89 mark he put up in Triple-A last year make it pretty clear they aren't sustainable. Coming off a 50-game ban as a first-year arbitration eligible player makes him a non-tender candidate since the Yankees might not want to guarantee him up to $1 million or more. Meanwhile, Austin Romine and J.R. Murphy are...there. Romine rebounded from an atrocious first half to bat .271/.343/.407 after the break, but he started just 18 games over that stretch before he lost September to concussion symptoms. Murphy replaced him, but got the call only six times despite hitting .270/.342/.430 at age 22 at Scranton-Wilkes Barre. Girardi's reluctance to play the pair gives us little to go on in predicting whether either one can be counted on for a contribution next year.

In a weak free agent class, the catcher position is predictably poorly stocked. Brian McCann is the best of the bunch, batting .256/.336/.461 with a 2.7 fWAR in 2013, though he caught only 92 games and he's had injury woes in the recent past. Jarrod Saltalamacchia's another possibility. His .273/.338/.466 career-year makes him somewhat attractive, but his 21% caught stealing rate makes him a popular target for opposing base runners. Either free agent would cost considerably more than Martin did a year ago in both years and average annual value, which could creep up into the $13 million to $15 million range. If they're sticking to the $189 million budget next year, with so many other pressing holes to fill, the Yankees probably can't afford an eight-figure catcher.

Behind the two top guys there are several one-or-two-year deal types who might make sense. A.J. Pierzynski's 1.7 fWAR, 92 wRC+ season for Texas may not have been stellar, but it was far better than anything the Yankees ran out, and the surly 36-year-old could come cheaper this time around than his $7.5 million 2013 salary. John Buck notched a non-horrible 1.5 fWAR for the Mets and Pirates, while Geovany Soto posted a respectable .245/.328/.466 line backing up Pierzynski for the Rangers. Former Yankee top prospect Dioner Navarro, still just 29, had a sort-of breakout year for the Cubs, hitting .300/.365/.492 while slugging 13 homers in 266 plate appearances. Carlos Ruiz is available too, though he'll more than likely stick with the Phillies.

They may try and tell us otherwise, but the Yankees can do better than Chris Stewart at catcher next year - as they could have done this year without spending a ton of money or even trying very hard. The team can't - and really shouldn't squeeze a four or five year deal for McCann or Salty into its budget, but they can bring in Navarro or Soto to compete with Murphy and Romine and possibly Cervelli.

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