2013 Season Preview: The Catchers

Fan Confidence Poll: March 4th, 2013
Cervelli's throwing stands out early in camp

Starting today and continuing through the end of the Spring Training, we’re going to preview the Yankees position-by-position and on a couple of different levels.

Chris Stewart got ejected for arguing a bang-bang play at first. Seriously. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)
(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

The Yankees made a lot of moves (and non-moves) this winter, but I don’t think any was quite as curious as letting catcher Russell Martin depart via free agency. The club offered him a three-year contract worth $20M+ a year ago, but something changed and they didn’t even bother making an offer this time around. I don’t think we’re ever going to know what happened behind the scenes there. Martin now plies his trade with the Pirates after taking a two-year pact worth $17M.

Since New York never bothered to find a replacement starting catcher, they’re left with a hodgepodge of has-beens and never-wases behind the plate. The Yankees are very likely to receive their worst offensive output from the position since before Jorge Posada broke into the league in the late-90s. Brian Cashman & Co. have preached defense defense defense at the position since Martin left for Pittsburgh, which is fine. Punting a position offensively is no way to win the AL East, however.

The Starter
The actual starting catcher is still to be determined, but based on the way the team’s decision makers talk about things, it sure sounds like Chris Stewart is the favorite. The 31-year-old was a zero at the plate — .241/.292/.319 (65 wRC+) in 157 plate appearances — as Martin’s backup last summer, and there’s nothing in his track record to suggest more offensive is coming. Pretty much the only thing Stewart has going for him offensively is his ability to make contact (career 12.2 K%), so maybe he’ll fluke into a .350 BABIP or something.

The defensive side of the ball is where Stewart earns his money. The various catcher defense rankings (2010, 2011, 2012) consistently rate him as average or better, plus those newfangled pitch framing studies say he’s one of the game’s best at turning would-be called balls into strikes. Whether that defensive value is enough to overcome his offensive shortcomings remains to be seen, but the Yankees have painted themselves into a corner and must hope that’s the case.


The Backup
With Stewart the likely starter, Frankie Cervelli is the odds on favorite to serve as his backup. Those two roles could easily be switched, but you know that already. Both guys are out of minor league options and Cashman has all but confirmed that ensures they will open the season in the big leagues.

Cervelli, 26, is another poor offensive player, but he is slightly better than Stewart — career .271/.339/.353 (88 wRC+) — and a bit more likely to surprisingly turn in a league-average performance. Despite coming up with a strong defensive reputation, Frankie’s defense was pretty awful from 2010-2011 and was part of the reason the team replaced him last year. The club had him work on some stuff in Triple-A last summer and the early returns are positive, especially with his throwing. That has been demonstrably better in camp.

Knocking on the Door
As they tend to do, the Yankees are faking a competition this year. The three “candidates” for the starting catching spot are Stewart, Cervelli, and 24-year-old Austin Romine, who has missed much of the last two years with back problems. He can hit a little and has a good defensive reputation, but he’s unrefined and in need of regular at-bats. Romine has the best long-term potential of the three catching options, but he’s very likely to open the year with Triple-A Scranton. Given all the lost time, playing everyday in the minors instead of playing half-time in the big leagues is the best thing for his development at this point. He’s miss a lot of at-bats since the close of 2010.


The Top Prospect
New York’s top prospect behind the plate also happens to be their top prospect overall, 20-year-old Gary Sanchez. He hit .290/.344/.485 (~125 wRC+) in 474 plate appearances split between Low-A Charleston and High-A Tampa last summer, and his 18 homers led all minor league catchers. Sanchez doesn’t have the innate hitting ability of Jesus Montero, but he does have a bit more power — career minor league ISOs: .193 vs. .210 in favor of Sanchez — and a far better chance of remaining behind the plate long-term. Give the catching situation at the upper levels, that’s pretty good news. Sanchez is expected to return to Tampa to start 2013 and should receive a midseason promotion to Double-A Trenton, meaning the only way he will be a factor at the big league level this summer is as trade bait.

The Deep Sleeper
The good news is that the Yankees are blessed with quite a bit of catching depth, which is absolutely intentional. J.R. Murphy will start the year back with Double-A Trenton, sandwiched between Romine in Scranton and Sanchez in Tampa. Further down the later is 16-year-old Luis Torrens, who signed out of Venezuela for $1.3M last July 2nd. Despite converting from third base to catcher within the last year or so, the Yankees are expected to bring Torrens to the United States with one of their two Rookie Level Gulf Coast League affiliates this summer. His defense lags behind his offense at this point (duh), but he still has breakout potential because he has an advanced approach at the plate and can hit to all fields.

* * *

The 2013 outlook behind the plate at the big league level is pretty grim at the moment, and it will almost certainly be New York’s least productive position this summer. That isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the possibility of the catching tandem being several standard deviations below average is. Say what you want about Martin and his low batting averages, but he was close to a league average hitter with the Yankees (98 wRC+) while being above-average defensively and even on the bases. That’s an above-average player and the team will go into this season with a clear downgrade.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 4th, 2013
Cervelli's throwing stands out early in camp
  • jim p

    I’m still not getting why Cervelli’s career .271/.339/.353 shows he can’t hit. Okay, not for great power but…

    • Barry

      His lack of power kills his value on the advanced metrics. He’s just a notch below what you’d like out of your catcher but if his defense is improved then it would translate to him being solid.

    • Guns

      I think, in the simplest terms, you can take his .271 AVG which is average to slightly above average for his position, his 8% walk rate which is just about average, and his career .082 ISO which would rank as well below average and one of the worst in baseball at his position. Add that all up and you get a slightly below average offensive player for his position if everything was weighted equally.

      Coincidentally, that’s precisely where wOBA (.311) and wRC+ (88) have him as well. More or less.

    • Laz

      I know. While it doesn’t blow you away, it is right around the production that Toronto is expected to get out of Arencibia. That guy is a career .222/.275/.433 hitter, yet people completely ignore that the bottom half of Toronto’s lineup is shit, whereas Yankees have 1 poor spot.

      • Guns

        I disagree with that “one poor spot.” The Yankee outfield is going to be downright bad with Granderson out. And even with Granderson, I’d love to see him have a big year to make up for the utter lack of power from Gardner and Ichiro.

        ZiPS likes Youkilis to rebound (.357 wOBA) and we better hope he does and doesn’t repeat the .328 he put up just last season. That would be a disaster. ZiPS is really low on Jeter (.311) and frankly I don’t know what to expect from him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he matched his ZiPS projection but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he approximated his performance last year.

        Any way you look at it though, that’s a lot of potential offensive downgrades other than catcher.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          This is the correct counterargument, of course. Not saying I necessarily agree with it, but my argument against the two-headed monster at catcher would be the lack of masking of it by the rest of the lineup.

          I can’t say much about Granderson. I can’t imagine any team for which losing your 40-HR centerfielder wouldn’t be a massive loss, although point taken on the team going with lighter-hitting options on the corners.

          We can make arguments on here which would make this lineup sound like a world-beater, and we can make arguments that make it sound awful. Once healthy, this team will have a 3-4-5 of Cano/Teixeira/Granderson, which is still pretty damn great, and will surround them with older, yes, but solid veterans in Jeter, Youk, and Ichiro. Add Gardner to that, and I’ll put that lineup against anyone. Of course, that’s still one side of the coin.

  • trr

    I’m sure the team would like to bring in a better option, but what quality catcher is/will be available? Seems like the job is Romine’s at some point this year, if he can earn it…

    • Barry’s Gift Basket

      Agreed on Romine.
      I was kinda hoping he got the job since OD, but that ain’t gonna happen, and I can make my peace with that.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    Everything has been said before. Nothing left to say anymore.

    • Yogiism

      Agreed. This topic has been beaten to death this winter and while I am likely in the severe minority, I have no idea why its been that much of an issue. I’m personally quite enthused by the Stewart/Cervelli and Romine options. All three are bonafide catchers and all three have received greats reviews both from the team and pitchers in recent years. There is actual data that has shown that these catchers contribute to pitchers having a lower ERA. Maybe I am one of the few that actually puts defensive abilities before offense for the position. I can’t understand the infatuation with Martin. Sure, he was a solid catcher and hit for some power occasionally, but I don’t think we lost much without having him. If fact, I think the Yanks improved a little, but again, take that for what you will. I am probably the 1% on that comment.

      • Need Pitching & Hitting (but mostly hitting)

        “There is actual data that has shown that these catchers contribute to pitchers having a lower ERA. ”

        For Cervelli?
        Or even Romine?

      • Larry B.

        I agree with Yogi. I think most fans are really overblowing the Martin thing. I liked Martin but Yankees really need to start transitioning into some of these young prospects at that position…

    • Yogiism

      ..and just for comparison, the Sox have 3 or 4 lumbering guys behind the plate and that’s not a good thing. Salty won’t hit for the same power in 13 and aside from that, really has no other value. He is not a good catcher and I’ll let people argue that all day. Ross is a nice player and I’d welcome him behind the plate, but a big guy with a few health issues himself. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he hits the DL a few times in 13. Lavarnway is a really big guy and also not an ideal fit for the position defensively and likely not of the caliber to call effective games just yet. Napoli won’t play the position at all. The O’s have Wieters who is a great young player. I don’t even know who the Rays are going with behind the plate and the Jays have a couple nice young options, but they gave up the best of the bunch in D’Arnaud so…We could go team to team and sure there are some really nice catchers across the league, but the question remains, which has been asked here today and many times before, really, who could the Yanks have gotten this offseason, not withstanding to Martin, that really would be better than Stewart, Romine and Cervelli? Answer: No one. Martin wasn’t worth the cost at this point and I agree with the Yanks on this move.

    • Jim Is Bored

      That’s no fun.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Marilyn Manson once began an album with that lyric.

  • uyf1950

    Don’t count Cervelli out of the equation just yet for the starting catching job. He has looked very good defensively so far this spring. And offensively he is slightly better than Stewart. Just my opinion but based on very early ST results I’d have to give a slight advantage to Cervelli.

    • Herby

      I kind of figured he was going to be the favorite coming in as it was.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mattpat11 Matt DiBari

    That was depressing

  • Barry’s Gift Basket

    *Looks for Ted Nelson… doesn’t find him*

    Our ML catchers suuuuck big time!! and pitch framing statistics can kiss my ass!!

    *Runs away*

    Seriously, O/U 8 homers from Stewlli?
    I´ll take the under.

    • Dalek Jeter

      Way under. Way, way under.

      • Barry’s Gift Basket

        Hah, as in… 3?

        Poor Stewi burned one in ST :(

        • Dalek Jeter

          4-5 I’d say.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Ready for this? I’ll take the OVER. I’d say each is good for about five.

      • Dalek Jeter

        R-Tils on the happy pills today!

        • Robinson Tilapia

          Just trying to make things interesting. I have no clue, honestly. Seemed like an easy “over” to take.

      • Guns

        I’ll take the under. Cervelli and Stewart have 9 career home runs COMBINED in about 950+ PA.

      • Barry’s Gift Basket

        Cervelli mwy hit more than five ina career year (please God, make that happen in 2013), but i don’t think Stewart can do it. His is like the uggliest, weakest swing i’ve seen by a Yankee ina a long time.

    • Manny’s BanWagon

      Please don’t mention that name that can’t be spoken again.

      I’d really hate to see it reappear.

      • Barry’s Gift Basket

        I think it has, check the next blog entry…

  • Dalek Jeter

    After watching him all of last year, I sort of think that Stewart is a product of Nichol’s Law of Catchers, because honestly nothing about his defense struck me as all that great. I mean, in almost 700 less innings last year he allowed the same number of Passed balls as Martin did.

    • Laz

      I’d much rather go with Cervelli. If he can be decent defensively, and put up the offensive numbers he has over his career, he could pretty much match what Arencibia is doing in Toronto.

    • Larry B.

      I think Stewart’s rep comes from his work with pitchers and his decent stolen base percentages.

  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    I hate Chris Stewart’s mock turtle necks…

    • http://www.twitter.com/JoeRo23 The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

      Respect the tactleneck.

      • Dalek Jeter

        Congressman, I’m just going to assume this is an Archer reference and tell you that I love you.

        • Robinson Tilapia

          Quit giving the retired old timer’s an even bigger head around here. :)

  • CS Yankee

    Some thoughts…

    1) The good news is that they didn’t commit to 3 years with Martin, the bad news is that he is gone in what maybe the last chance at the ring for a few years.

    2) The good news is that Cerv’ looks like he can throw down to 2B…

    3) The good news is that there is 3-4 kids in the system that might stick…I like JR, but he seems to be caught in the middle of good (Romine) and great (Sanchez) prospects.

    Hoping that Pronk, Teix and Cano rake early and often along with the singles and speed guys (Grit, Jete, & Ichi) and this lineup is very questionable (but still better than the BoSox).

    • Laz

      If healthy I think this lineup should be fine to compete with Toronto. Everyone seems to ignore that after the cleanup spot in Toronto their lineup is pretty bad. Rasmus, Arencibia, Bonifacio, Lind are all pretty bad.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        Agree completely. Everyone’s paying attention to the names, and just the fact that they made big, loud changes, while the Yankees didn’t but, IF HEALTHY, the Yanks lineup can stand on its own.

        Toronto also comes with a big, heaping side of “IF HEALTHY” as well.

      • Get Phelps Up

        And Reyes, Johnson, Bueherle, etc. could easily get injured or have trouble transitioning to the AL.

        • hogsmog

          Plus who knows how Bautista recovers from surgery.

  • ClusterDuck

    It’s really stretching a fine point if one wants to say Martin’s defensive skills were above average last year.

    His dWAR was 0.1.

    I think chances are Cervelli and Stewart will outperform Martin’s dWAR this year, assuming Cervelli doesn’t get another concussion.

    I also wonder how many HR’s Martin will hit this year away from Yankee Stadium.

    And I would point out that Cervelli is a lifetime ~.270 hitter.

    • Jim Is Bored

      It’s funny to me that you care so much about batting average but cite dWAR in the same comment.

      A lot of the Martin-is-above-average stuff includes more recent research on pitch framing.

  • OldYanksFan

    I liked Martin, but these facts:
    … 5 years of a declining wOBA.
    … a 4 year wRC+ average of 93.

    Maybe the Yankees figured that if Martin was not going to be significantly better ofensively then Stewvelli, that the $8.5m annually would be better spent elsewhere.

    I personally think that while the HRs were great, that Martin played well below his talent level. His approach at the plate did not do him well.

  • Mike HC

    I’m gaining a little confidence in the catching situation due to how Cervelli has looked so far. If he can keep this up throughout the spring, and more importantly into the season, I think the drop off from Martin will be far less severe than I feared.

  • Dalek Jeter

    …am I going crazy or was there just a write up about Cervelli’s improved defense that just vanished? I mean, I know I’m sick and have a slight fever, but to hallucinate an entire article? That would be insane.

    • Jim Is Bored

      I saw it.

      • Dalek Jeter

        Okay, cool it was a great article too. It actually had me decently high on Cervelli.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      Yeah I goofed on the scheduling. It’ll be back up at 3pm.

    • Barry’s Gift Basket

      It was there, there were a couple of comments already actually.

      You are not hallucinating dude, so keep gobbling the cough syrup, you are fine.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        …and now they’re gone, forever vanished.

        Maybe dalelama actually had something nice to say.

  • Now Batting

    So Cashman broke his ankle skydiving. We’re DOOMED.

    • Manny’s BanWagon

      Cashman is just a jackass. Between repelling down buildings and skydiving, the Yankees need to send him to a Psychiatrist to help him get over this midlife crisis before he kills himself.

      • Havok9120

        If you’ve got the money and pull to be doing stuff like that, why wouldn’t you?

        Isn’t this the kind of stuff everybody claims they’re going to be doing once they have the means? “When I’m rich, I’m gonna…” It’s not like the guy is ancient, give him a break.

        • Jim Is Bored

          I really thought his comment was sarcastic.

          • Robinson Tilapia

            Pretty sure it is as well or, at the very least, just an indictment of general dumbassness and not baseball related.

            I’ve always maintained I’d make getting a tattoo my big thing once the midlife crisis hits. Just seems safer than repelling down buildings and/or loose women who’d endanger my marriage.

            • Jim Is Bored

              More power to whoever wants a tattoo, but keep them damn needles away from me.

              • Manny’s BanWagon

                I was being sarcastic though I do think between the philandering(multiple times reportedly) which ended in him being blackmailed by a grifter, humiliated in the press and ultimately divorced followed by participating in sky diving and repelling down buildings, he just might wanna consider toning it down just a little bit.

                • Jim Is Bored

                  The philandering is the only part I had a problem with.

                  • Manny’s BanWagon

                    I’d just as soon have the man making the decisions for the Yankees stay inside a perfectly good plane.

                • Havok9120

                  For the record, I figured you were being sarcastic once I saw the handle. But I’ve read quite a few comments like that at various places. One or five were here.

                • vicki
  • Larry B.

    I was hoping by this time Romine would be entrenched as the backup or even starter (best case) but it didn’t happen that way. I am not as worried as many others are about the catching. You can bury a weak hitting catcher in the 9th spot as long as they bring top defense. I think sometimes you gotta take a couple of steps back to take a step forward. This is what is happening in the aftermath of post-Posada.

  • KeithK

    Given the candidates I’m not sure the team needs to define “backup” and “starter” for the catch position. Just carry the two guys and let them split time. If one guy starts hitting he gets to play more. If not they could be 50/50.

    We’ve gotten really spoiled by having a marginal HoF’er behind the plate for so many years.

    • Larry B.

      Yeah I envision Girardi platooning them with whoever happens to be hitting better getting the slight bulk of starts. They might split it by pitcher too, who knows. IIRC Sabathia likes working with Stewart. The naming the starter is a formality.

      • Laz

        Cervelli really has the best chance to be a decent hitter.

        Cervelli is the starter the entire season except for June and July. His 2 worst hitting months are stewart’s best.

  • emac2

    You should bring a rocket scientist in for a Q&A to help you get this catcher thing figured out.

    Maybe while he’s here he can help me understand how you view Martin as an all star hitter while Cervelli is a neverhaswas and Austin will never be able to hit and has no chance of making the roster anyway.

    Either way, your being an ass about our guys and when you do it bowing at the hitting alter of Russel Martin you don’t always come off as sane.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Yes, and this reply is just a perfectly level-headed retort.

  • Brian

    Any chance the Czech catching prospect they signed a few years ago, Daniel Vavrusa, who is now 21 gets to play for one of the GCL affiliates this year?

  • Gregg

    What do you really know?

  • Ted Tederson

    is it too late to get posada to come out of retirement?

  • Owlet72

    Watch Peter O’Brien, drafted out of da U (Miami). This kid can hit with power. He will play in Charleston to start.