On Saturday, the Yankees made the first, big free agent splash of the offseason. I'm not talking about some silly Marlon Byrd or Josh Johnson signing: I'm talking about signing the best catcher, by far, off the free agent market in Brian McCann. Before the McCann signing, however, the Yankees already had a surplus of young catching depth in the organization, so what does this signing mean for the rest of said catching depth?
Following a strong first 16 games of the 2013 season in which he hit .269/.377/.500 in 61 plate appearances, Francisco Cervelli hit a big bump in the road by breaking his hand in the first inning of his 17th game. To go along with the broken hand, Cervelli suffered a setback during his rehab (which included an elbow injury) and a 50-game Biogenesis suspension, thus he wasn't to be seen again in 2013. Because of this, there was thought that the Yankees would move on from Cervelli by non-tendering him. However, Brian Cashman did say the team would tender the 27-year-old a contract before the McCann signing. Cervelli is projected to make $1 million through arbitration and does not have any minor league options remaining.
Of course, the Yankees could change their mind and non-tender Cervelli, thus making him a free agent. They could also trade him and get anything they can for him, kind of like what the Cardinals did with David Freese, in return. If they do tender him a contract and keep him, though, he will be slated to be the team's backup catcher in 2014.
Austin Romine's 2013 season was a disappointing one, though I felt he didn't get a fair chance to prove himself. He hit just .207/.255/.296 and only got to start here and there, thanks to the Yankees' odd obsession with Chris Stewart. Before the signing of McCann, it wouldn't have been too crazy to think he would be the Yankees' regular catcher heading into 2014. Now it's unclear what Romine's role will be for the Yankees next season. If the team doesn't tender Cervelli a contract/decides to trade him, Romine would probably be slated as the Yankees' backup catcher with J.R. Murphy getting the regular catching job down at Triple-A Scranton. Unless I'm wrong, Romine does have an option remaining and could get sent to Triple-A and get regular at-bats down there. If he does not, the Yankees will have to decide between Romine and Cervelli to be the backup catcher next season.
Despite a down year on the farm, J.R. Murphy's 2013 was a pretty successful one. The 22-year-old Murphy hit .269/.347/.426 in 468 plate attempts split between Double-A and Triple-A. With positive reports that his defense behind the plate has made big strides, it wouldn't have been too much of a shock see Murphy break spring training as the team's regular catcher. Now, though, things look a lot different. Since Murphy has, in my opinion, more upside than Romine, I wouldn't want him to lose important development time by wasting away on the Major League bench. Instead, he could be kept down in Triple-A and get regular at-bats. If McCann gets injured (heaven forbid), Murphy could be brought up and get the regular at-bats behind the plate.
For years now (mainly since the Jesus Montero/Michael PIneda trade), Gary Sanchez has been labeled as "The Catcher of the Future" for the Yankees. With McCann now on board, however, Sanchez's long-term future with the team isn't as clear as it once was. Some may feel the Yankees should now trade their soon-to-be-21-year-old prospect for another area of need (pitcher? shortstop? outfielder?), but unless there's an obvious deal to be made, the Yankees' best bet is to hold onto their top prospect. There are also doubts as to whether or not Sanchez will be able to stay behind the plate long-term, so it's no guarantee he'll be able to catch even when he makes the majors with McCann already in the fold.
I didn't include Chris Stewart in all of this because it was a foregone conclusion that he'd be non-tendered anyway. Including Cervelli and excluding Stewart, the Yankees have five catchers on their 40-man roster. If they decide to stick with this, they'll have McCann and Cervelli at the Major League level, Murphy and Romine in Triple-A, and Sanchez in Double-A. Since there are still plenty of needs to be addressed, I could see a trade being made to help address one of those needs, but only if there's a deal out there that makes sense. It also wouldn't be the worst thing for the Yankees to hold onto all of their catching assets just in case, considering catchers (young catchers at that) are a valuable commodity. The Yankees are in the driver's seat here, and having a surplus of catchers is a very good "problem" to have.