Remember Jorge Posada? Boy, that guy was good. That .338 average with a 157 wRC+ was really something coming from the catcher's position, wasn't it? His last two full seasons behind the plate from 2009-10, he hovered around a 123 wRC+, and that was considered pretty average for him. That hokey glam metal band from the '80s has the right idea. Hell, for as much as we mocked Russell Martin's two seasons in pinstripes, he still had a combined 39 homers and a 98 wRC+, which was nice despite his horrid batting average and declining on-base percentage.
However, Posada was forced from behind the plate in 2011 due to concussions, and lefthanded pitchers turned him to mush. Martin moved on to the project in Pittsburgh earlier this offseason after accepting a two-year, $17 million contract when the Yankees decided they did not want to give him a multi-year commitment. This decision was tough, but understandable since they want to get under $189 million in payroll to avoid a heavy luxury tax next year. The unfortunate result of this decision is that their catching situation is horrid at this point in the offseason.
General manager Brian Cashman said that their starter at the position "more likely than not" will come from within. As we've learned from previous Cash offseason statements about Bubba Crosby being the starting centerfielder for 2006 and Jesus Montero having a shot at starting catcher in 2012, his word is not at all final. That being said, if Cash does choose to select from what's in the system at the moment, he has to have a lot of faith in his catchers' defense. At the moment, it looks as though the Opening Day catcher will be the winner of a competition featuring the recently-signed Bobby Wilson, 2012 backup Chris Stewart, 2010-11 backup-turned-exile Francisco Cervelli, and AAA starter Austin Romine.
Wilson will be 30 in April, and he has spent the last few years as a backup with the Los Angeles Angels. Yes, even Jeff Mathis caught ahead of him. Like most of Angel manager Mike Scioscia's favorites, his bat is nothing inspiring, as his career batting line of .208/.272/.321 with a 65 wRC+ indicates. Wilson is basically another Stewart, as he must rely on his defensive reputation for a chance at the starting job. His career CS% is mediocre at 27% in 133 chances, but Matt Klaassen's catcher defense statistics recently ranked him 10th among all major-league catchers through his rating system. Although Chris Ianetta was the primary starter for the Angels last year, he only appeared in four more games with just 52 more plate appearances than Wilson. It was a fairly even split. Regardless of his defensive ability, the Yankees would be running out a lineup with a near-automatic out at the bottom if he is their starter.
Stewart is regarded as a defensive wizard behind the plate (Klaassen's #72 ranking and a disappointing 23% Caught Stealing rate last season in 35 attempts notwithstanding), but 2012's batting line of a .241/.292/.319 with a 65 wRC+ was sadly a career-best. Unsurprisingly, YES broadcaster John Flaherty loves him because he sees a lot of his own career in Stewart. Yet, the Yankees decided to trade reliever George Kontos to the San Francisco Giants for Stewart at the end of Spring Training last March because they judged through elusive catcher-defense statistics that he stole many strikes behind the plate. You can put good money down that an official MLB team's statistics are better than anything available to the public, but catcher defense is still difficult to quantify. Stewart will be 31 next year; he has never played a full season behind the plate in the pros. Like Wilson, he would be a near-automatic out in the lineup.
As previously mentioned, Cervelli was exiled to AAA at the end of Spring Training in favor of Stewart. He had been the primary backup for two years after the Yankees let Jose Molina walk at the end of 2009, and he hit fairly well for a backup: .269/.348/.354 with a 93 wRC+ in 454 plate appearances. However, his previous reputation for solid defense in the minors took a hit when he committed 19 errors over the two seasons, mostly on terrible throws to center field trying to catch basestealers. It was enough for the Yankees to snub him in 2012, and he sulked in AAA before ending his season with the "Empire State Traveling Road Show" at .246/.341/.316 with a 89 wRC+. He might have a chance to redeem himself in Spring Training, but given the Yankees' recent treatment of him and the acquisition of Wilson, don't hold your breath. Cervelli's really not worth your time, and his only-marginally better bat than Wilson/Stewart is not worth it for the likely loss on defense.
Romine(!) was once a top 10 Yankees prospect, but his status took a hit after an injury-plagued 2012. He suffered from back inflammation and a strain that forced him from even appearing in any Spring Training games. Romine did not make his 2012 debut until July 13th in the Gulf Coast League. He didn't get back to AAA (where he was supposed to be the starter all year) until August 8th, and he played just 17 games there. For a guy who took two years to get out of AA, this stunt in development was crushing. The Yankees' management loves his defense and considers it major-league ready, but in an ideal world, he would at least figure out how to hit AAA pitching before making it to the pros. As it stands though, he will probably have a chance to impress manager Joe Girardi in Spring Training. If he suddenly shows he knows how to hit top pitching even a little bit, my guess is that his best-case scenario has him on the major-league roster as the backup catcher. In all likelihood, he will return to AAA to finally have some offensive development at the minors' highest level.
Another option still available on the free-agent market is Kelly Shoppach, who will be 33 in late April. In 2008, he had a breakout season with the Cleveland Indians when he hit .261/.348/.517 with 21 homers and a 128 wRC+ in 112 games. Since then though, Shoppach's stock has plummeted. He took a step back to a 98 wRC+ in '09, then failed to stick as the Tampa Bay Rays' starting catcher in consecutive years from 2010-11, bottoming out with a pitiful .171/.268/.339 line in '11 with a 73 wRC+. Shoppach rebounded slightly last year in limited roles with the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, hitting a combined .233/.309/.425 with a 96 wRC+. The righty probably benefited from the Green Monster in his half-season there, but it was somewhat encouraging nonetheless. Mets skipper Terry Collins liked his defense, and his 41% CS% led the AL last year to make up for his dismal offense. Klaassen ranked Shoppach #100 on his list of 116 in catcher rating though, and he probably is only an average defensive catcher at best. Still, his bat has arguably the highest potential of all catchers in this post and the free-agent market outside of the likely-expensive A.J. Pierzynski.
It's a dark time behind the plate for the Yanks, but time will only tell who will at the position once occupied by greats like Berra, Dickey, Howard, Munson, and Posada. It will still be a long while before Spring Training, so there is plenty of time for Cashman to make another move for a catcher. If he's done though, we will just have to hope that the rest of the lineup will be able to carry this likely black hole, and his defense will be superb enough to make up for it. If not, prepare for some groans and grumbling throughout the 2013 campaign.
Catch the excitement.