Latest roster cuts clarify Opening Day bullpen and bench pictures

(Presswire)
Whitley. (Presswire)

The Yankees announced their latest round of roster cuts earlier today, optioning Chase Whitley to Triple-A Scranton and reassigning non-roster invitees Rob Refsnyder, Nick Noonan, and Eddy Rodriguez to minor league camp. By my count there are still 32 players in big league camp, four of whom are injured (Brendan Ryan, Chris Capuano, Ivan Nova, Vicente Campos).

Today’s roster cuts clarify if not finalize the Opening Day bullpen and bench pictures. Whitley was one of four candidates left for the final two bullpen spots along with Andrew Bailey, Chasen Shreve, and Chris Martin. Bailey told Mark Feinsand today he will stay behind when the team heads north tomorrow and continue working his way back from shoulder surgery with High-A Tampa when the minor league season begins. That leaves Shreve and Martin for the last two bullpen spots.

Ryan’s calf injury opened up the backup infielder’s spot, and while Joe Girardi hinted at Refsnyder being a candidate for the job, his reassignment to minor league camp today confirms he won’t make the team. Same with Noonan. Fellow reserve infielder candidate Cole Figueroa was sent to minor league camp last week, leaving the recently acquired Gregorio Petit as the front-runner for the backup infielder’s job. That makes sense, he can play defense all around the infield (unlike Refsnyder) and is right-handed hitter (unlike Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew, Noonan, and Figueroa).

I’m very surprised Whitley was sent down. He’s pitched very well in camp. I guess the Yankees feel Whitley is more valuable as the sixth starter in Triple-A than as the second long man in MLB. The backup infielder situation is whatever. As I said this morning, sitting on bench does Refsnyder no good, and picking between Petit, Noonan, and Figueroa is a toss-up. There’s no right or wrong answer. There’s just an answer, and it appears the answer is Petit.

Adam Warren has officially been named the fifth starter, and with Shreve, Martin, and Petit now looking like safe bets for the Opening Day roster, the only position battle left in camp is for the backup catcher’s job. All signs from the last 12 months point to John Ryan Murphy being the guy, but Austin Romine is out of minor league options and Brian Cashman admitted that will play a role in the decision. We’ll see.

Brendan Ryan and Jose Pirela injuries don’t leave Yankees many backup infielder options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

By and large, the Yankees have made it through Spring Training without any major injuries to significant players. Chris Capuano will miss a few weeks with a quad strain, and while it’s never a good thing to lose pitching depth, he is replaceable. Brendan Ryan suffered a Grade II calf strain yesterday and had to be literally carried off the field. He’s not going to be ready in time for Opening Day, which is now only four days away. Not by a long shot.

Losing Ryan in and of itself is not a big deal, but the middle infield injuries are starting to pile up. Didi Gregorius has missed the last few days with a wrist sprain and is scheduled to return to game action this afternoon, so at least he’s on the mend. Jose Pirela has not done anything more than ride a stationary bike after crashing into the outfield wall ten days ago and suffering a concussion. Thankfully everything seems to be going well with Didi’s wrist, but Ryan and Pirela being hurt at the same time means the Yankees need a new backup infielder. Their options are pretty limited with Opening Day right around the corner. Let’s run ‘em down.

A-Rod at Shortstop?

A-Rod mustache

Nope. Moving on …

The Stephen Drew/Rob Refsnyder Option

The Yankees have insisted Drew is a second baseman, so much so that he’s played zero innings at shortstop during Grapefruit League play. That’ll change today though. Drew is slated to play shortstop during one of the team’s split squad games this afternoon — for what it’s worth, he said he feels he could pick shortstop back up quickly — just so he could be an option in case Didi’s wrist issue lingers.

Following Ryan’s injury yesterday, Joe Girardi told reporters the Yankees could go into the season with Drew as their backup plan at shortstop and carry a second baseman as the backup infielder. That’s about as close as Girardi could come to saying Refsnyder is a candidate for the backup infielder’s job without actually saying it.

“Things can happen quick,” said the skipper to Chad Jennings. “I think a lot of clubs hold their breath this time of year that you leave camp the way you are. Sometimes it doesn’t happen and you’ve got to deal with it … Didi and Drew are healthy, so we’re going to have to look at probably more of a second baseman in a sense. You could look at a second baseman more than a shortstop because you have two shortstops.”

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Refsnyder’s bat would be a welcome addition to the bench, but, as we’ve seen this spring, his defense is far from MLB ready. I don’t think the Yankees want to go through the hassle of adding Refsnyder to the 40-man roster* only to have him sit on the bench four out of every five games either. That doesn’t help his development or the team. And no, like it or not Refsnyder wouldn’t take over as the starting second baseman. They’ve made that very clear.

So yes, using Drew as the backup shortstop and carrying Refsnyder as the backup second baseman is an option, but not an ideal one. The 40-man issue is not insignificant — once Refsnyder is added he won’t come off, so flexibility would be hurt — and the Yankees would need to feel confident in Alex Rodriguez as Chase Headley‘s backup at third base. At this point of his career, I don’t see what good being a part-time player does for Refsnyder.

* The 40-man roster is indeed full. The official site shows 39 players but is missing Tyler Austin for whatever reason. Ivan Nova is a 60-day DL candidate, so that’s one easy-to-open spot.

Other Internal Candidates

Beyond Refsnyder, the Yankees’ other internal backup infield options are Nick Noonan, Cole Figueroa, Jonathan Galvez, and the recently acquired Gregorio Petit, the first three of whom were signed to minor league contracts for this exact reason. To be depth in case guys like Ryan and Pirela got hurt. Galvez hasn’t played the middle infield since the 2013 season, so he’s not a good reserve infielder candidate. The Yankees need someone who can play at least second base on the bench.

Figueroa is a contact machine, his bat-to-ball skills are top notch (10.0 BB% and 6.8 K% in nearly 1,200 Triple-A plate appearances), but he has zero power and isn’t much of a defender. Noonan can’t hit but he can defend, all around the infield too. Same with Petit. Figueroa and Noon are left-handed hitters, which isn’t ideal, but there’s nothing the Yankees can do about that. When it comes to this bench spot, I think the club would be better off with Noonan’s or Petit’s glove than Figueroa’s ability to put the ball in play.

Figueroa, Noonan, and Petit would have to be added to the 40-man roster, though, unlike Refsnyder, they don’t have to stay there. They could be designated for assignment whenever Pirela or Ryan gets healthy. These guys aren’t part of the long-term plan and wouldn’t hurt flexibility. There’s a big picture element to all of this the Yankees can’t ignore.

Florimon. (Presswire)
Florimon. (Presswire)

The Out of Options Market

We’ve reached the point of spring where players who are out of minor league options are starting to get traded (Sandy Leon) or placed on waivers (Cesar Puello). It figures to happen with Austin Romine soon too. There are very few out of options infielders for the Yankees to consider as temporary bench players. In fact, of all the infielders on MLBTR’s out of options list, only one is not expected to make his team’s Opening Day roster: Pedro Florimon.

The Pirates are expected to waive Florimon soon, and while he’s a quality defender at short, he has basically no experience at second (nine games in the minors) or third (eleven games in the minors) bases and absolutely can not hit. He’s Ryan without the versatility, basically. The Rays just released Alexi Casilla to avoid paying him the $100,000 retention bonus as an Article XX(B) free agent, so perhaps he’s an option. Casilla’s a more versatile, less defense-y version of Florimon.

Point is, there aren’t many readily available infield options for the Yankees to consider during Ryan’s absence, hence the Petit trade. The Yankees didn’t get someone better because no one better is available. There’s a real dearth of quality infielders in baseball these days. Even replacement level guys are hard to find right now. The Yankees could pick up Florimon and/or Casilla for depth, just to have the extra body around, but they aren’t any sort of upgrade over what they have in house right now.

* * *

As fun as it would be to see Refsnyder on the Opening Day roster, I don’t see the point in carrying him as a bench player. He needs to play to improve his defense. Taking extra ground balls before games won’t help much either. Refsnyder needs game reps. Since Pirela seems to be on the mend, the Yankees can focus on a short-term replacement. I’d prefer Petit or Noonan but if they want Figueroa or Florimon or Casilla, fine, whatever. Either way, this player won’t see much playing time. Or shouldn’t, anyway. The Yankees only need a band-aid right now. Nothing more.

The Defense First, Power Second Bench [2015 Season Preview]

Murphy and the skipper. (Presswire)
Murphy and the skipper. (Presswire)

From 2009-12, the Yankees did a good job of having a functional bench, giving Joe Girardi options to pinch-hit or rest players without the lineup taking a huge hit. That hasn’t been the case the last two years due mostly to injuries — many projected bench guys were pushed into everyday roles. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

The importance of the bench in today’s game is obvious, especially for the Yankees, who have an older roster and plenty of players who need regular time off. Three of the four bench spots were filled with new players this winter, and every member of last season’s Opening Day bench has since been jettisoned. It’s an entirely new crop of players. Let’s look at the reserves and where these guys fit in the big picture.

Catcher: John Ryan Murphy

Alternative: Austin Romine

Long-time backup Francisco Cervelli was traded away this winter for two (maybe three) reasons. One, the Yankees wanted to clear a spot for Murphy, who was impressive filling in during Cervelli’s hamstring injury last year. Two, they wanted to bolster their bullpen with Justin Wilson. (Three, they wanted to save a little cash.) The job is not Murphy’s just yet — he is competing with Romine in camp — but all signs point to him being the guy.

Murphy, 23, put up a .284/.318/.370 (93 wRC+) batting line in 32 big league games last year but his defense is his calling card. Anything he can do with the bat — he’s a year removed from a 117 wRC+ between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013, for what it’s worth — is a bonus. Murphy has ranked as a top shelf pitch-framer in his brief big league career and he’s considered a strong receiver who handles pitches in the dirt well.

The Yankees value catcher defense greatly. They wouldn’t clear the spot for Murphy if they didn’t believe he could excel defensively. Brian McCann is the clear cut number one catcher and will be asked to carry the majority of the workload behind the plate this year, so Murphy’s job is to get the pitching staff through the game whenever McCann needs a day off. That’s it. If he hits, wonderful. But that is secondary as far as the Yankees are concerned.

Infielder: Brendan Ryan

Alternative: Jose Pirela

Pirela. (Presswire)
Pirela. (Presswire)

Once again, the 32-year-old Ryan is dealing with a back injury in Spring Training. He started light workouts earlier this week but there’s no firm timetable for him to return to game action. That is opening the door for Pirela, just like last year’s back injury opened the door for Dean Anna. If Ryan has another setback — he’s already had one this spring — it’s hard to see how he’ll ready for Opening Day.

If healthy though, the backup infielder’s job is Ryan’s. The team owes him $2M this year and he’s still an above-average fielder at the hard to fill shortstop position. He can’t hit a lick — .167/.211/.202 (12 wRC+) in 124 plate appearances last year and that’s pretty much what you should expect going forward — but the Yankees are now a run prevention team and he fits the mold. Ryan is a guy who plays when someone else gets hurt or needs a day off, that’s it. He’s not a pinch-hitting option or even a pinch-running option.

Pirela is pretty much the exact opposite of Ryan. He can hit — or at least we think he can hit — but his glovework is very shaky. The 25-year-old hit .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with Triple-A Scranton last season and is off to an 8-for-15 (.533) start to Grapefruit League play, and that’s his calling card. Pirela’s a hitter. He’s not much of a defender but he can play just about every position other than pitcher or catcher. If Ryan can’t start the season on time, Pirela is the odds on favorite to start the year as the backup infielder.

Outfielder: Chris Young

Alternative: Pirela? Ramon Flores?

New York’s very first move of the offseason was re-signing Young to a one-year deal worth $2.5M. They grabbed him off the scrap heap last summer and he had a nice month of September in pinstripes (146 wRC+ with three homers), which earned him a new contract. Overall, the 31-year-old young hit .222/.299/.385 (95 wRC+) with the Mets and Yankees in 2014.

Young’s days as an everyday player are pretty much over. He’s a right-handed platoon bat because of his power, not his ability to hit for average, that’s what the Yankees need with two left-handed starting outfielders and a third who is a switch-hitter whose weak side is the right side. Young’s defense remains above-average — he can play all three outfield spots in a pinch — and he can even steal a base off the bench. He figures to be used most often as Carlos Beltran‘s defensive replacement in right field, though I’m sure he’ll get plenty of starts against southpaws as well.

The Yankees don’t have an obvious alternative to Young. Pirela is probably the best option and Flores is the most MLB ready of their upper level outfield prospects. Pirela is right-handed and Flores is left-handed, and that’s not insignificant given the makeup of the roster. Others like Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin need more minor league time before realistically being considered MLB options. If Young gets hurt, Pirela’s probably the guy. Assuming he isn’t filling in for Ryan, of course.

G.I. Jones. (Presswire)
G.I. Jones. (Presswire)

Utility: Garrett Jones

Alternative: Pirela? Austin?

The Yankees have been after Jones for years — they first tried to acquire him from the Pirates in the A.J. Burnett trade — and they finally landed him in the Martin Prado/Nathan Eovaldi trade this offseason. He gives them a backup plan at three positions where they have players who have battled injuries in recent years: first base (Mark Teixeira), right field (Beltran), and DH (Alex Rodriguez).

Jones, 33, hit .246/.309/.411 (99 wRC+) with 15 homers last year, though Miami used him as their everyday first baseman, and he’s not an everyday player. He’s a left-handed platoon hitter, one who’s hit .260/.314/.475 (116 wRC+) against right-handed pitchers over the last three years with this spray chart:


Source: FanGraphs
Yeah, Jones is going to enjoy hitting in Yankee Stadium. And that’s going to be his job. Come off the bench and try to yank something over the wall. Jones has made a nice little career of doing just that and that’s all the Yankees want him to do in 2015. Play some right field, play some first base, see a few starts at DH, mash some taters. Very straight forward.

As with Young, there is no obvious alternative to Jones, so I guess Pirela is the guy by default. Austin can also play first base, right field, and DH, but he has yet to play above Double-A, so he needs to spend some time in Triple-A before helping the big league Yankees. Jones will likely see the most playing time of the projected four bench players and that makes him the most difficult to replace.

Brendan Ryan’s injury is slowly opening the door for Jose Pirela

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last spring Brendan Ryan went down with a combo neck/back injury early in Spring Training, and the injury lingered into the regular season. The injury allowed Dean Anna to make the Opening Day roster — Yangervis Solarte straight up beat out Eduardo Nunez for his roster spot, remember, Anna was the one who benefited from Ryan’s injury — and he remained with the Yankees until Ryan returned in mid-May.

Ryan is once again dealing with a back problem this spring, this time a mid-back sprain he suffered lifting weights about ten days ago. He was initially expected to miss five days and get into games late last week. That hasn’t happened. Ryan felt some renewed soreness last week and had to be shut down. He’s not expected to resume light baseball workouts until later this week, possibly tomorrow if he progresses well.

“Now it feels kind of like Groundhog spring,” said Ryan to Chad Jennings over the weekend. Ryan also mentioned fielding drills are not a problem right now, it’s swinging a bat that is giving him issues. “The timing of this whole thing is horrible … I don’t want to get into the middle of March having not progressed very much … If I get three weeks in, I’ll feel good about that.”

There is still plenty of Spring Training left — Opening Day is four weeks from yesterday — and Ryan could always go over to minor league camp to get nine or ten at-bats a day to speed up his preparation for the season, but at some point soon he’s going to have to make real progress and get over this back injury. It keeps lingering and lingering. It has to stop lingering before he can do anything.

Much like last year, Ryan’s injury is slowly opening the door for a younger player to crack the Opening Day roster. Last year it was Anna, this year it’s utility man Jose Pirela, who is ahead of Rob Refsnyder on the depth chart because he’s more versatile and ahead of Cole Figueroa, Nick Noonan, and Jonathan Galvez because he’s already on the 40-man roster. It hasn’t hurt that Pirela has gone 5-for-11 (.455) with a double and a triple early in Grapefruit League play either. Fringe roster candidates have to hit in camp to make the team.

The 25-year-old Pirela was up late last season and went 8-for-24 (.333) with a double and two triples in his MLB cameo after hitting .305/.351/.441 (117 wRC+) with ten homers, 21 doubles, eleven triples, and 15 steals (in 22 attempts) in 130 games for Triple-A Scranton. He’s versatile too, having played every position other than pitcher, catcher, and third base for the RailRiders last summer. Pirela’s an adequate at best defender — he’s already made one error this spring and also misplayed a ground ball into an infield single — but that’ll work for a role player.

“We’re going to move (Pirela) around because that flexibility is nice to have,” said Joe Girardi to Jennings. “In the limited time that he was up last year, he did a really good job for us. And you could put him in the outfield as well. I don’t know how much we’ll put him in the outfield in spring, but I’m comfortable putting him out there anywhere. You never know how things are going to shake out in camp.”

The Yankees added Pirela to the 40-man roster last September — he joined the team after Martin Prado went down with his appendectomy — an indication they were planning to do so after the season to prevent him from becoming a minor league free agent. (Pirela became a minor league free agent after 2013 but re-signed with New York.) He’s never been a top prospect, he’s a guy who’s had to hit his way onto the map, and he’s going to have to keep hitting to stay there. Players like this — think Andy Phillips — get an opportunity, but not necessarily a long one. They have to capitalize in a hurry, like Solarte last year.

“Whether someone is hurt or not, that isn’t something that I consider,” said Pirela to Jennings. “No one wants a teammate to ever be hurt, especially starting the season. I have to focus on myself, competing with myself … I’m very thankful to the Yankees for this opportunity. They’ve given me plenty of opportunities. I just want to continue doing my job and I just hope to keep getting a chance to show what I can do.”

Ryan’s not a great (or even good) player but his ability to play shortstop has real value. Pirela hasn’t played shortstop regularly since 2011 because he’s just not good enough defensively. He’s someone the Yankees could use at short for a few innings in an emergency. That’s really it. Ryan is someone they could run out there at short for a week if necessary. The presence of Stephen Drew means the Yankees don’t necessarily need the 25th man on the roster to be able to play short though. If Didi Gregorius were to get hurt, Drew could slide over to short and Pirela could play second.

The Yankees owe Ryan a decent amount of money ($2M isn’t nothing) and cutting a legitimate shortstop loose in favor of a potential utility guy just because he’s younger and homegrown doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, so Pirela’s chances of making the Opening Day roster are tied directly to Ryan’s back injury. If Ryan stays hurt, Pirela’s chances of making the team will continue to go up. But if Ryan gets back on the field by, say, this weekend, he should be ready in time for the season. Like it or not, Ryan has the inside track for a bench job, but the back injury means the door has started to crack open for Pirela.

The Plan B’s: Sorting through the Yankees’ backup options at each position

A wild backup first baseman has appeared. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)
A wild backup first baseman has appeared. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

We’ve spent, well, just about the entire offseason discussing rotation options should Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), CC Sabathia (knee), Michael Pineda (shoulder), or whoever else get hurt during the 2015 season, but the pitching staff is only one piece of the team. The Yankees suffered several position player injuries last summer and didn’t always have an appropriate backup. Remember Brian McCann and Kelly Johnson at first? Zelous Wheeler at third? Martin Prado in right? It wasn’t pretty.

Thanks to their offseason machinations and improved farm system, the Yankees appear to be better prepared to handle the inevitable position player injury(ies) this coming season. And they are inevitable. Someone’s going to pull a hamstring, take a pitch to the hand, something like that. It takes way more than 25 players to win, remember. Teams put the entire 40-man roster to work each season and the Yankees have more position appropriate backup plans in place for 2015. Let’s run them down.

Catcher
Starter: Brian McCann
Backup Plan: John Ryan Murphy, Austin Romine?, Eddy Rodriguez?

You’re not going to find a bigger SKJRM (Serial Killer John Ryan Murphy because his name sounds like a serial killer, for you newbies) fan than me, but even I am a little nervous about the idea of Murphy taking over as the everyday catcher if McCann gets hurt at some point this year. McCann’s a pretty damn important player to the Yankees* and losing him to injury would be a big blow. Romine is out of options and will probably be in a different organization come Opening Day, either via waivers or a minor trade, leaving Rodriguez as the likely third string catcher. He has two MLB games to his credit. In the worst case scenario, I think the Yankees would make a trade for a veteran stopgap backstop rather than call up Gary Sanchez for an extended period of time.

* The starting catcher is an important player for every team, this isn’t unique to New York.

First Base
Starter: Mark Teixeira
Backup Plan: Garrett Jones

Finally, a real live backup first baseman. Nine players played at least one game at first base for the Yankees last summer, including McCann, Johnson, Carlos Beltran, Brendan Ryan, Scott Sizemore, and Francisco Cervelli. The team’s approach to backing up Teixeira last year was basically “we’ll put anyone there,” but now they have Jones, a true first baseman with over 400 games of experience at the position in MLB and another 800 or so in the minors. He played 129 games at first for the Marlins just last year. Phew. When Teixeira needs a day off or gets hurt this coming season, the Yankees can stick Jones there and we all won’t have to hope for the best on ground balls to first or slightly off-line throws from other infielders. If both Teixeira and Jones get hurt at some point, I guess McCann would see time at first, or Kyle Roller could get the call from Triple-A if he mashes again.

Second Base
Starter: Stephen Drew
Backup Plan: Rob Refsnyder, Brendan Ryan

Shortstop
Starter: Didi Gregorius
Backup Plan: Stephen Drew, Brendan Ryan

Refsnyder. (Scranton Times-Tribune)
Refsnyder. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

I’m going to lump the two middle infield spots together because I think if either Drew or Gregorius misses time this year, Refsnyder is going to step into the lineup as the replacement. He’ll take over second if Drew gets hurt, and if Gregorius gets hurt, Drew will slide over to short and Refsnyder will take over at second. Ryan is there for the day-to-day stuff. Gregorius sitting against a tough lefty or Drew needing a day off after starting 15 straight, something like that. If there’s an extended absence though, I believe Refsnyder’s the guy. Ahead of Ryan and ahead of Jose Pirela.

Third Base
Starter: Chase Headley
Backup Plan: Alex Rodriguez?, Brendan Ryan?

Third base is a potential problem area should injury strike. There is no obvious fill-in candidate until A-Rod shows he can handle the position at least somewhat regularly, say two or three times a week, and that might not ever happen. Ryan’s played a handful of games at the hot corner in his career, Gregorius has ten career innings at third, and Drew has never played there as a pro. Even Pirela just has a handful of games at third in his career.

The Yankees did add some minor league infield depth in Jonathan Galvez, Nick Noonan, and Cole Figueroa, none of whom we want to see in the Bronx playing regularly next year. They’re emergency options, and if A-Rod can’t play third, it might be an emergency the instant Headley gets hurt. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.

This all depends on Alex. If he can play third base some, they’ll have an okay backup plan. If he can’t, the Yankees will probably have to go outside the organization should Headley go down for an extended period of time.

Left Field
Starter: Brett Gardner
Backup Plan: Chris Young, Jones?

Center Field
Starter: Jacoby Ellsbury
Backup Plan: Gardner, Young

Right Field
Starter: Carlos Beltran
Backup Plan: Young and Jones

The outfield is pretty straight forward so I’m going to lump the three positions together. The backup plan should any of the starters go down is a Young/Jones platoon. (Jones has some left field experience but not much, though I don’t think the Yankees would hesitate to throw him out there if necessary.) If either Gardner or Beltran gets hurt, the Young/Jones platoon takes over in either left or right. If Ellsbury gets hurt, Gardner takes over in center and the Young/Jones platoon steps into left. Simple, right?

Young has been a center fielder his entire career and is still a quality defender, so he’s the third option there. Pirela logged a decent amount of time in left in the minors and is probably the sixth outfielder — behind the starting three, Young, and Jones — by default. Ramon Flores had a nice run in Triple-A last summer (116 wRC+) before hurting his ankle and is next in line behind Pirela. As of this very moment, I think Flores would get the call over Tyler Austin, who is also on the 40-man roster and slated to open the year with the RailRiders. That could change if Austin straight up mashes.

* * *

Aside from third base and the always vulnerable catcher position, the Yankee have clearly defined backup plans all over the field. Young and Jones have the outfield covered, Refsnyder is backing up the middle infield in case of a long-term absence, and Jones is a true backup first baseman behind Teixeira. The Yankees had to scramble for help whenever a position player got hurt the last few years, particularly on the infield, but they have more protection now. Hopefully they won’t need to use these backup plans, but you know as well as I do that it’s inevitable. The 162-game schedule is cruel like that.

The upcoming apprenticeship of John Ryan Murphy

Great hair and a name fit for a serial killer. (Rich Schultz/Getty)
Great hair and a name fit for a serial killer. (Rich Schultz/Getty)

A catcher had to go this offseason. The Yankees had five catchers for four roster spots between the big league level and Triple-A Scranton, and one of those five catchers (Brian McCann) wasn’t going anywhere. That left four bodies for three spots, so, when the time came to unclog the logjam, the Yankees sent Frankie Cervelli to the Pirates for Justin Wilson. Cervelli’s the oldest of the non-McCann catchers and also the most expensive. It made sense.

The trade leaves John Ryan Murphy and Austin Romine for the backup job behind McCann — Gary Sanchez will be the regular catcher for Triple-A Scranton — and while there’s talk of a Spring Training competition, all signs point to Murphy being the guy. The Yankees have held rigged Spring Training competitions before and they’ll do it again, and I don’t really see anything wrong with it. Competition is good, especially among young players fighting for a roster spot.

Romine served as Chris Stewart’s backup for most of 2013 but seemed to play his way out of the organization’s long-term plans. When Cervelli went down with his hamstring injury last April, the Yankees turned to Murphy as his replacement. When rosters expanded in September, Murphy got the call as the third catcher, not Romine. (Romine was called up in mid-September after Cervelli got hurt again). Murphy is ahead of Romine on the depth chart and that’s not at all surprising considering the way the team talks about him.

“He’s different, he’s special. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever had—and that’s 40 years of some of the greatest catchers who have ever been behind the plate,” said bullpen coach Gary Tuck, an ex-big league catcher and longtime catching instructor, to Dan Barbarisi back in May. “A championship player. And I don’t say that about many people. He’s right there—Joe Girardi, Jason Varitek, John Ryan Murphy. A championship player.”

Teams talk up their young players all the time, but Tuck’s praise goes beyond the usual “we like him, we think he’ll be a good player for a long time” schtick we usually hear. The Yankees think so highly of Murphy that they traded Cervelli, who they entrusted as their regular catcher just last year, to make room for him. Murphy will spend next year backing up McCann and learning from him as well as Tuck, Girardi, bench coach Tony Pena, and others.

“It’s the same situation I was in when I was called up. I was playing once a week, and trying to learn on every other day,” said McCann to Barbarisi. The Yankees broke Jorge Posada in this same way, using him as a backup to Girardi and gradually increasing his playing time until he took over as starter. McCann has four more years on his contract, but he turns 31 next month and has nearly 10,000 big league innings on his legs. The team will have to scale back his workload sooner or later, creating an opportunity for Murphy.

Despite his massive reverse split in 2014, McCann has historically struggled against left-handed pitchers, meaning it’ll be fairly easy to give him regular rest in favor of the right-handed Murphy. This isn’t the crazy David Price/Jon Lester AL East of a few years ago, but there are enough Wei-Yin Chens and Mark Buehrles and Wade Mileys in the division for Murphy to start once or twice a week. Girardi also seems to like the idea of personal catchers, so Murphy could see action that way. For some reason a Murphy/Chris Capuano pairing strikes me as a thing that could happen.

“In my role right now I just have to understand that I have to be ready to play at any time,” said Murphy to Jorge Castillo back in May when asked about being a backup for the first time in his career. “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.”

Because Romine is out of minor league options and would have to clear waivers to go to Triple-A, the Yankees could conceivably use him as the backup catcher and send Murphy down, preserving their depth. I don’t think that will happen though. The Cervelli trade and their roster machinations last year all seem to indicate the team realizes Murphy is a big league ballplayer. The backup job is Murphy’s and 2015 will be the start of his apprenticeship as the team grooms him to take over as McCann’s long-term replacement.

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.