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Yankees free agent target: Dioner Navarro

Could the former farmhand be a short-term answer for future farmhands behind the plate?

"You don't REALLY want Stewie back, do you?"
"You don't REALLY want Stewie back, do you?"
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Once upon a time, Dioner Navarro was just like J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez, hoping to be the young catcher who succeeded Jorge Posada in the line of great Yankee backstops. Signed by the Yankees at age 17 out of Caracas, Venezuela, he played four full years in the Yankees organization, rising from Rookie Ball to New York by the end of 2004, when he made his MLB debut with three hits in five games. He was named by Baseball America as the 41st best prospect in baseball prior to the '04 season and the most highly regarded prospect in an albeit weak Yankee farm system. George Steinbrenner was obsessed with acquiring Randy Johnson though, so when an opportunity arose to acquire him in the 2004-05 off-season, off Navarro went to the Diamondbacks, a move that immediately preceded a trade to the Dodgers for slugger Shawn Green.

Navarro is most well known for being the primary catcher for the Tampa Bay Rays from mid-2006 until 2010, by which time he was displaced by John Jaso. He was an All-Star for the Rays in their stunning 2008 season, when they went from AL East cellar dwellers for 10 years to AL champions. Navarro played in a career-high 120 games and hit .295/.349/.407 with 27 doubles, a 105 wRC+, and 2.2 fWAR in addition to throwing out 38% of baserunners trying to steal. It was a terrific season for a 25-year-old, but Navarro quickly declined from 2009 through 2010. He was plagued by elbow problems in '09 and after the season, he underwent an ulnar nerve transposition.

Since the surgery, Navarro has been an afterthought, backing up for four different teams in four years, most recently with the Cubs in 2013. He wouldn't even be worthy of an article if it wasn't for a resurgent season at Wrigley Field. Navarro had perhaps his best offensive season, hitting .300/.365/.492 with 13 homers, a .374 wOBA, and a 136 wRC+ in 89 games. Navarro split time with young Welington Castillo, who understandably received more starts since he's more important to the Cubbies' future. Navarro threw out 26% of baserunners and produced a two-win campaign by Baseball-Reference WAR standards, proving he was more than worth the one-year, $1.75 million deal offered to him before the season. The switch-hitter crushed lefties to a .361/.451/.672 triple slash and hit righties well too, with a .279/.333/.430 line.

With the Yankees' current catching situation in dire straits, it might be an idea for the Yankees to try to get him to return to his original organization. Navarro could still probably be acquired for one-year deal as he has the past few off-seasons, and a one-year contract would be pretty ideal for the Yankees at this point as they try to eventually transition to Murphy, Sanchez, or Austin Romine. Navarro would be a vast improvement over Chris Stewart if the Yankees wanted a veteran/rookie combination at catcher. Although he was far behind Stewart in pitch framing rankings, Navarro brings far more to the table at the plate than Stewart, and he does not have Stewart's problems with passed balls, either.

It would not be the worst idea for the Yankees to try going into the season with a combination of Murphy and Romine behind the plate to give the kids a chance to settle the Yankees' catching situation at a low cost, but we all know the Yankees won't do that. They like their veterans too much and will almost certainly have at least one veteran catcher to work with whichever young catcher to choose to take with them on the Opening Day roster.

If they must have a veteran catcher and don't want to bother with the overpriced deals likely to be offered to Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia at the head of the free agent class, Navarro would be a fine veteran to select for a relatively low cost, one-year deal. They could split time behind the plate with Navarro and Murphy/Romine, thereby offering the younger catcher a legitimate opportunity to develop in the majors as Castillo did last year on the Cubs while not completely gambling on rookies. Although it's unlikely that Navarro will replicate his superb 2013 numbers, he will still only be turning 30 on February 9th and he will bring a lefty swing against righties at Yankee Stadium, so a performance even remotely similar to his 2013 would certainly not be out of the question.

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