Cervelli trade doesn’t guarantee Murphy backup catcher job

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

At the GM Meetings last week, the Yankees swung a trade sending long-time backup catcher Frankie Cervelli to the Pirates for hard-throwing lefty reliever Justin Wilson. It’s the third straight offseason in which a Yankees catcher has gone to the Pittsburgh — Russell Martin signed with the Pirates as a free agent during the 2012-13 offseason and the two clubs got together for the Chris Stewart trade last winter. Maybe they like the same catchers because their internal metrics are similar.

Anyway, the Yankees made the trade because they almost had to move a catcher this winter. It had gotten to the point where they simply had too many catchers for too few spots at the upper levels. Brian McCann is locked into the starting MLB job and Cervelli had a leg up on the backup spot, leaving John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine, and Gary Sanchez for Triple-A Scranton. That’s not really feasible. Playing time is a zero sum game — the more at-bats Sanchez gets, the fewer there are for Murphy and Romine.

Something had to give and it turned out to be Cervelli, who is two years from free agency and projected to earn $1.1M through arbitration next year. Why pay seven figures for a backup catcher — an injury prone backup catcher at that — when you have several players who can do the job for close to the league minimum? The Yankees dealt from a position of depth and added an interesting arm to the bullpen mix while shedding some salary. It’s not the type of move that will win a team a title but it helps balance the roster.

As soon as Cervelli was traded, I and I think many others considered Murphy the favorite to take over as McCann’s backup. That makes sense — Murphy was the one who got the call when Cervelli got hurt last year and Romine didn’t even get a September call-up at first. (He was called up after Cervelli got hurt in mid-September). Romine has stalled out the last year or two and Murphy has played well, especially when he first came up last April and May. He’s ready for a big league job.

There are other factors to consider, however. First and foremost, the Yankees might not be done dealing. Murphy isn’t a top trade chip but he’s a desirable piece because, again, he’s basically MLB ready. Catching is hard to find and plenty of teams will try to pry six years of Murphy away from New York if given the chance. I both would and wouldn’t be surprised if he gets traded at some point, perhaps for a shortstop. I don’t think it will happen but it wouldn’t come out left field either. Trading Murphy seems completely plausible.

Trading Murphy would free up the backup catcher’s job for Romine, though I would expect the Yankees to sign a veteran backup catcher type to compete for the job in Spring Training. Someone on a minor league contract who can fight for the job in camp then go to Triple-A Scranton to back up and mentor Sanchez (and also serve as the third catcher). The same applies to trading Romine, though he isn’t as tradeable as Murphy. Romine is likely to be out of options though — Chad Jennings heard it “does not appear” Romine will qualify for a fourth option — which opens another can of worms.

If Romine is in fact out of minor league options, he won’t be able to go to Triple-A without first clearing waivers. It’s easy to say he will be claimed because he’s a young and cheap catcher who once had some nice prospect shine, but I looked through the MLBTR Transaction Tracker, and not many catchers get claimed off waivers. In fact, there have only been nine waiver claims involving a catcher since May 2008, and three of them featured the perpetually available George Kottaras. That guy always seems to be on waivers.

Maybe the means Romine will clear waivers, or maybe it means catchers like Romine rarely hit waivers and aren’t able to be claimed in the first place. The latter seems more likely to me. The Yankees have more upper level catching depth than most teams and could be the rare club who waives someone like Romine, but the easy solution would be sending Murphy to Triple-A and letting Romine back up McCann. They have that option as well, as unlikely as it seems. Options are good though and the Yankees don’t need to make a decision now.

“We’ll see how the winter continues to shake out,” said Cashman to Brendan Kuty following the Cervelli trade. “We have guys with Major League service in Romine and Murphy. So we’ll see how it all shakes out still. I’m still open to any possibilities to assist in improving our club.”

Backup catcher is very low on the offseason priority list because it is a position of depth, even after the Cervelli trade. The Yankees can roll into next season with what they have right now and be perfectly fine behind the plate. I do think Murphy has a leg up on the backup job with Romine likely to be exposed to waivers, but that’s just me. A lot can and will change in the coming months. The Cervelli trade helped clear up an organization logjam but it didn’t guarantee anyone a job either.

Teixeira’s lingering wrist soreness increases need for a real backup first baseman

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

When the Yankees signed Brian McCann over the winter, I’m pretty sure they knew he would have to move to first base eventually. He turned 30 just as Spring Training started and he’s been an everyday catcher for a long, long time. McCann caught almost 9,000 innings with the Braves in the regular season alone. Eventually he’ll have to move out from behind the plate. That’s just the way it goes.

Now, that said, I don’t think the Yankees expected to start McCann at first base 52 games into his five-year contract. He had never played first base before this season, but Joe Girardi used him there for four innings (spread across three games) earlier this year in blowout games. Nothing crazy. Jorge Posada did that a bunch of times too. But starting a game at first, like he did last night? That was not the plan coming into the season.

“I was a little hesitant to do it,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings before last night’s game. “I saw him over there those couple of times and I’m a little more open to it, just because of some of the injuries. You know, there are a lot of things you don’t plan on doing during the course of the season that kind of go awry when some things happen. I never planned on playing Vernon Wells at third base last year. Never in my wildest dreams, but it happened. That’s where you have to be sometimes a little creative.”

First, shout-out to Girardi for reminding me Wells played third base last year. I completely forgot about that (even though I GIF’d it). He played second base at one point too. So did Mark Reynolds. Now let’s wipe that from our memories forever.

Anyway, the Yankees have essentially been forced to play McCann at first base on occasion because they never bothered to pick up a real backup first baseman over the winter. The backup first baseman was Kelly Johnson by default — “We felt that Kelly’d be able to handle it, and I still think that Kelly can handle it,” added Girardi — and he had 18 career innings at the position coming into the season. McCann, Johnson, Frankie Cervelli, and Scott Sizemore all started games at first this year. Brendan Ryan and Carlos Beltran have played there as well. Seven different players already.

Mark Teixeira will visit the doctor to have his surgically repaired right wrist examined at some point today. He missed the Cardinals series due to lingering soreness and inflammation, something that will apparently be the norm going forward. It’s going to act up from time to time — “[The doctor] was surprised I haven’t had more flare ups,” said Teixeira to Jennings — and they’ll have to manage it somehow. More days off, more time at DH, more treatment, whatever it takes. They don’t have much of a choice.

Because Teixeira’s wrist will continue to be an issue, the Yankees will have to keep forcing round pegs into the square hole at first base. McCann was fine last night but he wasn’t tested with any particularly tough plays. Johnson has been a mess over there recently — is it just me, or did he look much more comfortable over there while Teixeira was on the DL in April? what happened? — and that’s to be expected given his inexperience. Same goes with McCann, Ryan, Sizemore, and whoever else they throw over there.

The Yankees had the ideal backup first baseman in Nick Swisher a few years ago. A productive player who could play another position everyday and step right in at first base if need be. It was awesome. That’s much more preferable to a pure backup first baseman like, say, Lyle Overbay. Players who can play another position and slide over to first seamlessly are hard to find though. Kendrys Morales is still unsigned but he barely qualifies as a first baseman at this point of his career (59 games at first since destroying his ankle in 2010). Maybe Mitch Moreland becomes available if the Rangers continue to fall out of it. Who do you drop from the roster to make room for this player though? It’s tricky.

Looking back — and really, we don’t even need hindsight to say this — it was pretty silly to come into the season with no really backup plan at first base after Teixeira missed all of last season with a wrist injury, especially since he was told it would flare up during the season. Yeah, they did bring in Russ Canzler on a minor league contract, but that’s it. Keeping Mark Reynolds as a part-time corner infielder/DH would have been awesome, but it’s pretty clear he signed with the Brewers because they gave him a greater opportunity for playing time. Hopefully Teixeira’s soreness this week nudges the Yankees towards finding a suitable backup and soon.

Murphy helping the Yankees now and emerging as a building block for later

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

One very valid criticism of the Yankees is that they simply don’t produce enough quality players from the farm system. It has now been seven years since Brett Gardner made his debut, and the second best homegrown position player during that time is Frankie Cervelli at 2.2 fWAR. An injury prone backup catcher. The Yankees do a good job filling out their bullpen and the back-end of the rotation from within, but they haven’t produced even an average position player in a long time. It really hurt last year during all the injuries.

Now, obviously the Yankees are the Yankees, and as long as they are the Yankees they will target big names over younger players, even their own young players. They have shown a tendency to favor certain players over others (the teacher’s pet, basically) and give them extended opportunities — Gardner, Phil Hughes, and Eduardo Nunez jump to mind — but otherwise a young player needs to do what Robinson Cano did and force the team’s hand if he wants to play regularly. That’s what Yangervis Solarte did earlier this year, for example.

So far this year, with an assist to Cervelli’s latest injury, John Ryan Murphy has emerged as a weapon off the bench. He plays sparingly because Brian McCann‘s contract guarantees he will play no matter how big his slump, but in limited time the 23-year-old Murphy has gone 14-for-37 (.378) and recorded at least one hit in eight of his ten starts. Despite walking only once, he is seeing 3.7 pitcher per plate appearances and has swung at pitches out of the zone at a league average-ish rate (31.0%). Murphy has shown some semblance of plate discipline, which is not all that common for young players in part-time roles. They tend to come out hacking when they get a chance to play because they want to prove to everyone they belong.

“In my role right now I just have to understand that I have to be ready to play at any time. So even though I’m not playing for the first eight, nine innings or whatever the game was at that time, I still have to be mentally locked in and ready to go,” said Murphy to Jorge Castillo recently. “I’m just learning everyday from these guys. It’s hard not to. The years on this team and the amount of experience that they have, it’d be dumb for me not to take advantage of this time I have here and learn from these guys.”

Usually we say that if a young player isn’t going to play everyday at the big league level, he should just go to Triple-A and get regular at-bats. That is true in almost all cases, but I think Murphy and young catchers in general are different. The catcher position is so unique because it’s not just hitting and catching the ball, like say an outfielder would. Catchers have to develop a relationship with the pitching staff and pour over scouting reports each series. Every position requires behind the scenes preparation, but catchers have by far the most. It’s a tough gig and I don’t just mean physically.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Young catchers have the most difficult transition from the minors to the show for that reason. Look at guys like Yadier Molina and Matt Wieters, for example. They were as highly touted as anyone coming up as prospects, but it took them quite a while to adjust to MLB and fully realize their potential. Wieters still hasn’t done it, really. Sure, everyone once in a while a Buster Posey breaks the mold, but they are the exceptions. The Yankees brought Jorge Posada along slowly for this reason, to ease the transition with the help of a veteran catcher. Murphy and McCann are the modern day Posada and Joe Girardi, in a sense.

Now, the elephant in the room is Cervelli, who is eligible to come off the 60-day DL on June 12th, two weeks from Thursday. Joe Girardi recently told George King that Cervelli’s rehab from a hamstring strain is going well and the expectation is that he will be ready to be activated when eligible. Two weeks and two days is a long time, plus Frankie has a way of getting hurt and staying hurt, so it’s tough to count on him. Whenever he is activated though, will the Yankees keep him and send Murphy back to Triple-A? Probably. Is that in the best interests of the team, both right now and into the future? I find it hard to believe.

Like I said, because the Yankees are the Yankees and are always looking to add that next veteran who may or may not put them over the top, Murphy and the team’s other young catchers are prime trade bait. The Bombers have been smart to hoard young backstops all these years because they are very hard to find and valuable in trades, at least somewhat. Backup catchers are a dime a dozen — Nick Hundley was just traded for a bad lefty specialist and George Kottaras is on waivers every other week, so I don’t think Cervelli would fetch much in a trade at all — but young guys with promise have very real value. A rebuilding club could stick Murphy in their lineup on just about an everyday basis — right now too, not two years down the line — and that is very appealing.

Unlike Austin Romine last year — man did Romine blow a golden opportunity last season, huh? — Murphy has shown the Yankees everything they wanted to see when they called him up following Cervelli’s injury. He’s hit well and I think he’s done well defensively, including his work with the pitchers. I don’t have anything to back that up, the pitching staff might hate him for all I know, but Murphy seems to be doing a good job in the non-hitting parts of the game. He broke out in the minors last year and has continued to progress this year. The Yankees haven’t had much luck developing homegrown position players lately, but Murphy is helping them win games right now and he looks very much like someone who can help the team long-term.

Where does Brendan Ryan fit in?

Leave the bat, bring the glove. (Presswire)
Leave the bat, bring the glove. (Presswire)

Earlier this afternoon the Yankees officially activated Brendan Ryan off the 15-day DL, just as we all expected. He had been working his way back from a back injury in the minors — seven rehab games plus who knows how many more in Extended Spring Training — and he takes Michael Pineda‘s spot on the roster. Pineda’s suspension expired, so he was placed on the 15-day DL with his back/shoulder injury. The Yankees got their 25th roster spot back and no other moves were required to accommodate Ryan.

The Yankees were forced to play with a three-man bench these last ten games due to Pineda’s suspension, so getting back to a normal four-man bench and 25-man roster will be nice only because it gives Joe Girardi some more flexibility. How he uses Ryan remains to be seen because, frankly, he’s a pretty limited player whose true value is very much up for debate given the sketchy nature of defense stats. He is a no-hit, all-glove shortstop, after all. I think we can all agree Ryan has zero value if he isn’t playing in the field and that’s something of a problem because the Yankees have shown no indication are willing to cut back on Derek Jeter‘s playing time just yet.

As I mentioned this morning, Jeter has not played a single game at DH this season. He’s been the starting shortstop exclusively. Given his age and shaky defense, that’s probably not something that should continue all season. He’s going to wear down if his recent slump isn’t an indication he has started to already. Using Ryan to give Jeter a day off his feet, either as the DH or a full day on the bench, is the most obvious way to use him. How often will that happen? Once a week feels like the bare minimum. Twice a week wouldn’t be a bad idea.

The Yankees could use Ryan at second and third base once in a while — he hasn’t played a position other than short since 2009, for what it’s worth — but beyond that, he’s not very useful. That’s pretty much exactly how the Yankees used Dean Anna for the first few weeks of the season, but Anna was a career minor leaguer who could be buried on the bench for days on end and no one would care. Ryan’s making decent money ($2M) and his defense is an asset. Finding that balance between using him enough that he has an impact but not enough that he gets exposes will be tough.

Will Girardi and the Yankees be willing to use Ryan as a defensive replacement for Jeter in the late innings? I’m tempted to say no way, but I think there’s a chance it will happen. Girardi did pull Jeter for pinch-runner Ichiro Suzuki earlier this season, something that never would have happened in the past. Maybe we’ll see Ichiro pinch-run for Jeter, then stay in the game to play right with Ryan coming off the bench to play short. That could be one way to make the substitution without being so abrupt. Pulling Jeter for Ryan in a straight “your defense sucks” move seems a bit harsh. I don’t know. We’ll see.

Getting Ryan back tonight will help just because he’s another warm body and the Yankees will finally have a full roster. He won’t fix the team’s main problem right now — get a damn runner in from scoring position already! — but he’s going to help somewhat. The needle will move a little bit. It’s a weird situation because Ryan has a very specific skillset and they don’t line up well with the iconic Jeter, not unless the Yankees commit to reducing Derek’s time in the field. Right now Ryan is just a relatively expensive infield caddy.

Eduardo Nunez, Vidal Nuno, and Triple-A depth

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees finalized their Opening Day roster over the weekend and made somewhat surprising choices to round out the bullpen and bench. Vidal Nuno won the final bullpen spot while Yangervis Solarte beat out Eduardo Nunez for the final bench spot. I say somewhat surprising because neither of those moves felt impossible, just unlikely. At least they did to me.

The rationale behind the moves is simple. Joe Girardi insisted they would take the best pitchers for the bullpen and that’s what they did by choosing Nuno over guys like Matt Daley and Cesar Cabral. Having three stretched out relievers (Nuno, David Phelps, Adam Warren) allows them to take it easy on Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda early in the season. Solarte flat out outplayed Nunez in camp, plus he’s a switch-hitter, more versatile (can play left field), and more reliable defensively. See? Simple.

So now rather than opening the season on the big league bench, Nunez will start with Triple-A Scranton, presumably playing shortstop everyday. Maybe he’ll move around the infield a bit. With Nuno in the show, the Yankees brought back Al Aceves to fill out the Triple-A pitching staff. He’ll join prospect Shane Greene and veterans Brian Gordon, Chris Leroux, and Bruce Billings in the rotation, though it’s been reported Chase Whitley will also get a rotation spot. We’ll see.

With the rosters set at both the big league and Triple-A level, we finally have a clear picture of the team’s depth. It takes a lot more than 25 players to get through a 162-game season, so the extra 15 guys on the 40-man roster are really important. You know that. Nunez may be gone now, but there’s a pretty good chance he will resurface at some point in 2014. Here is the position player depth chart:

MLB Starter MLB Backup AAA Depth
Catcher McCann Cervelli Murphy/Romine
First Base Teixeira Johnson Canzler
Second Base Roberts Johnson/Solarte/Anna Nunez/Sizemore
Shortstop Jeter Anna/Solarte Nunez
Third Base Johnson Solarte/Anna Nunez/Sizemore/Wheeler
Left Field Gardner Soriano/Solarte Almonte
Center Field Ellsbury Gardner/Ichiro Richardson
Right Field Beltran Soriano/Ichiro Almonte

Eventually Brendan Ryan will join the infield mix. He’ll start the season on the DL with a back problem, and Brian Cashman recently said he will miss more than the minimum 15 days. How much longer? Who knows. Backs have a way of staying hurt. Whenever he does get healthy, Ryan figures to replace either Dean Anna or Solarte on the bench. Those two won jobs in spring, but they have to continue playing well to keep them.

Anyway, compared to last season, the Yankees have much more position player depth. Obviously that has to do with all the injuries they dealt with in 2013. Guys like Nunez and Ichiro Suzuki were playing everyday last year. This season they are, at best, the third option at their positions. Austin Romine went from MLB backup to Triple-A backup. Scott Sizemore is an almost identical player to Jayson Nix, who played damn near everyday last season. Those types of players are Plan C now, not Plan A.

The pitching staff is a little more straight forward, especially the bullpen. Daley and Leroux pitched well enough in camp to put themselves near the front of the call-up line while Aceves has a track record with the organization. Given his, um, unpredictable personality, that is not necessarily a good thing for him. Greene and when healthy Jose Ramirez are younger options. Cabral is the obvious choice whenever a left-hander is needed. The Yankees didn’t have many bullpen problems last year, though with Mariano Rivera, Boone Logan, and Joba Chamberlain gone, they’ll need their depth a bit more this season.

The rotation depth is a little more unclear. Nuno seemed likely to go to Triple-A to be the sixth starter, but instead he’ll be with the big league squad. In a perfect world, the Yankees would keep him, Phelps, and Warren all stretched out, but that’s not practical. If all of those guys manage to stay stretched out to 80+ pitches, that means the rotation has been a mess and the bullpen is being called on often. Keeping one stretched out is doable, they did it with Warren last year. But two or three guys? That’s not going to happen.

Aceves might be the sixth starter now, but I think the Yankees are taking a simple “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” approach to their rotation depth. They’ll worry about it when the time comes and see what the available options are. Maybe they can pull Nuno or Phelps out of the bullpen, maybe Greene forces the issue, maybe they grab someone off the scrap heap like they did with Gordon three years ago. They might not need a sixth starter until May or June. No sense in worrying about it now.

Don’t get me wrong, we all wish the starting infield was better, but the combination of good health and offseason additions have given the Yankees much more depth for the start of 2014, especially on the positive player side. They’re going to need it too, it’s inevitable. The rotation picture is a little unclear beyond the top five but that’s okay. It’s not like the team doesn’t have options, it’s just that those options are being used in bullpen roles right now so the best possible combination of 25 players are on the Opening Day roster.