Craig Tatum & The Catching Picture

Craig Tatum is judging you. (Rob Carr/Getty)

The Yankees made a somewhat surprising move yesterday by claiming Craig Tatum off waivers from the Diamondbacks, surprising only because a third string catcher didn’t seem to be high up on the priority list. Sure enough, we later learned that incumbent third stringer Austin Romine had suffered a setback while recovering from a back problem that has kept him out basically all spring. The Yankees suddenly had a need behind the plate, especially since Frankie Cervelli isn’t exactly Mr. Durable.

Tatum, 29, is nothing special, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. There’s a reason he was on waivers, and in fact this is the third time he’s been claimed since October. The Orioles, Astros, and D’Backs have each deemed him expendable this offseason. Tatum does his best work on the defensive side of the ball, with Baseball America saying he’s “a solid receiver who frames pitches, blocks balls well and calls a good game” in addition to having “above-average arm strength” in their 2009 Prospect Handbook, the last time he made the annual. A .256 wOBA in 299 big league plate appearances is an accurate representation of his offensive ability.

It’s worth noting that Tatum is out of options and can’t be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers. I know he’s already been claimed three times this winter, but chances are he will clear the fourth time. Since the Yankees were awarded the winning claim from Arizona, that means Tatum went through the entire NL unclaimed as well as the entire AL since the Yankees finished with the best record in the league last year. New York was dead last on the waiver priority list, so he would have cleared if it wasn’t for them. Chances are he’ll clear whenever they try to send him down.

There’s not much to say about Tatum himself, but what is important is what he represents. Tatum is a reminder that catching depth has a way of disappearing quickly, just like pitching. Things looked great a few months ago when the Yankees had Russell Martin, Jesus Montero, Cervelli, and Romine at the upper levels, but now less than two weeks before Opening Day they’re down to Martin, Cervelli, Tatum, and a hobbled Romine. The herd has already been thinned out.

This is something that goes beyond the 2012 Yankees as well. Romine figured to be a somewhat important part of the club’s future following the Montero trade, especially since Martin is due to become a free agent after the season and the Yadier Molina contract has changed the salary  landscape. Now Romine is a question mark because of recurring back injuries. If he continues to have problems, the team’s long-term catching situation is going to be a real concern. It’s an important position, arguably the most important on the field, and the depth the Yankees appeared to have a few months ago has been compromised. Let’s hope for some positive catching developments this summer.

Austin Romine suffered setback of back injury

Via Mark Feinsand and Chad Jennings, Austin Romine has suffered a setback while attempting to recover from the back inflammation that has sidelined him for most of spring. He had resumed workouts not too long ago, but felt a “little pinch” at some point recently. The setback led to the Craig Tatum waiver claim. Romine dealt with a similar problem last season, so this is an obvious concern. Back problems are scary, and recurring back problems are even scarier.

Austin Romine and D.J. Mitchell win 2011 Kevin Lawn Awards

Via Mike Ashmore, Austin Romine and D.J. Mitchell have named the 2011 Kevin Lawn Award winners. That’s a fancy way of saying they were named the Yankees’ minor league hitter and pitcher of the year for last season. Romine produced a .332 wOBA in 85 Double-A games last year before brief promotions to Triple-A and the big leagues. He also won the award in 2009. Mitchell pitched to a 3.18 ERA (3.96 FIP) in a farm system-leading 161.1 IP for Triple-A Scranton last summer. Congrats to both.

Girardi Speaks: CC, Rotation, Lineup, A-Rod

New year, same buzzcut.

Travel problems delayed Joe Girardi‘s arrival to Spring Training, but he made it to Tampa safe and sound prior to today’s workout session, the first of the 2012 season. Girardi spoke to the media about the state of his team afterward, so here’s a recap…

Pitching

  • CC Sabathia will get his seventh consecutive Opening Day nod, but after that? “You go [in] with an open mind,” said the skipper. [Marc Carig]
  • Girardi said it’s important that Sabathia maintains his weight, and “stays there or close to it.” It’s most important that he “stays strong,” obviously. [Jack Curry]
  • Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia will battle it out for the fifth starter’s spot, though Girardi said he still envisions the former as a starter. [Curry]
  • “I’m always amazed at how big players are today,” said Girardi about new pickup Michael Pineda. “They’re large humans.” [Mark Feinsand]
  • David Robertson will remain the Eighth Inning Guy™ while Rafael Soriano gets stuck in the seventh inning. I’d like to see Robertson in more a fireman role rather than be married to one inning, but whatever. [Feinsand]

Position Players

  • Girardi is leaning towards a 3-4-5 of Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira, but he qualified it by saying: “I’m not married to that.” Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson figure to remain atop the lineup. [Feinsand & Carig]
  • Girardi doesn’t have a clearly defined plan for A-Rod regarding his rest and time at DH, and he’ll probably play it by ear. He does expect Alex to have a big year, though not necessarily 45 homers big. [Carig & Curry]
  • “I anticipate it will be [Frankie Cervelli],” said the skipper when asked about the backup catcher. Others like Austin Romine will get a shot to take the job in camp though. [Erik Boland & Carig]

Miscellany

  • “If not for [A.J. Burnett], we may not win that World Series,” said Girardi about his departed right-hander. “I felt A.J. did everything we asked him to.” [Marc Carig]
  • “I thought our guys came in good shape,” Girardi said. “I thought they were all ready to go.” [Chad Jennings]

[Photo via Bryan Hoch]

The Long-Term Catching Situation

(Al Bello/Getty)

As I said on Saturday morning, the trade of Jesus Montero has some far-reaching implications for the Yankees organization. First and foremost they’ll miss his offense, but he also factored into the team’s long-term catching situation. Granted, very few people not employed by the Yankees actually think he can stick behind the plate long-term, but his name had to be included any time we discussed the team’s future behind the plate. That has changed, obviously.

Thankfully, the catcher position is not an immediate concern. Russell Martin will be back as an arbitration-eligible player in 2012, projected to earn $6.7M by MLBTR’s system before becoming a free agent after the season. He was exactly league average on offense during his first season in pinstripes (.325 wOBA and 100 wRC+), which means he was better than the average AL catcher (.307 wOBA and 91 wRC+). Defensive metrics are imperfect (especially for backstops), but he definitely helped prevent runs with his glovework. Martin will be the regular catcher in 2012, there was little doubt about that even before the trade.

I have to think Austin Romine was pretty thrilled to find out that Montero had been traded, allowing him to finally step out of his shadow and solidify his position as the team’s catcher of the future, at least in theory. Even though he made his big league debut in September, Romine needs to get a couple hundred at-bats in Triple-A, which he should have received in 2011 but didn’t because of Montero. He’ll get those at-bats this summer while Frankie Cervelli backs up Martin, then hopefully force his way into the 2013 picture.

Further down the minor league ladder is J.R. Murphy, who made enough progress behind the plate in 2011 that staying at catcher long-term is no longer a pipe dream. Gary Sanchez is right behind him, but the reports on his defense have been pretty rough over the last year. Both guys can hit, more than Romine can, but they’re also several levels away from the big leagues and we all know how much can wrong when you’re talking about kids in Single-A. Both are a footnote in the team’s long-term plans at the moment, so it’s basically up to Romine to provide help behind the plate in the next few seasons. The only problem is that catching prospects tend to develop late, so his timetable might not line up perfectly with the team’s needs.

Because of the large learning curve — a new pitching staff and new hitters to study — and the physical wear-and-tear associated with the position, it takes catchers longer to adjust to big league life than any other type of position player. The Buster Posey and Joe Mauer types that come up and provide immediate impact are the exception while Matt Wieters-like growing pains are the rule. Having a veteran caddy to ease the transition is certainly preferable to just rolling the dice and hoping for the best with the kid, especially when you’re trying to contend. That veteran caddy for Romine could very well be Martin, who has expressed an interest in remaining with the Yankees beyond 2012.

“If you are asking me if I want to be here, yes, but they are in a nice position with the quality of kids they have,” said Martin to George King back in September. Brian Cashman has praised his backstop since signing him last December, but also said a long-term contract “hasn’t been discussed” as of a month ago. For what it’s worth, Martin’s agent did acknowledged that his client would consider a multi-year pact with the Yankees, and Moshe explored the merits of a such a deal earlier this offseason. In a perfect world, he’d take nothing more than two or three-year contract and help gradually usher in the Romine era, like Joe Girardi helped usher in the Jorge Posada era a generation ago.

The Yankees have a long tradition of great hitting catchers, but Montero won’t be around to carry the torch. Murphy and Sanchez might be able to fill that role down the road, but we’re several years away from that. Romine won’t have that kind of offensive impact, but he has the tools to be a sound defensive backstop while being a non-zero with the stick in the future. That’s a valuable player — especially at or near the league minimum — but the Yankees are going to have to make sure he’s given adequate support. Martin on a medium-term contract extension makes some sense, but if he’s not open to it, it would behoove the team to find a veteran backstop to ease their young catcher into the lineup.

Banuelos, Betances, Romine among top Eastern League prospects

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Baseball America’s look at the top 20 prospects in each minor league continued with the Double-A Eastern League today, and three Yankees farmhands made the cut. Manny Banuelos ranked sixth, Dellin Betances was three spots behind him at number nine, and Austin Romine was a little further down at number 17. Bryce Harper and (personal fave) Travis d’Arnaud topped the list.

In the subscriber-only scouting reports, John Manuel says Banuelos has “excellent velocity for a lefthander, with his fastball sitting at 90-94 mph and touching 95 with regularity.” His changeup has “sinking, screwball action when it’s on and was often his best secondary pitches.” He can also get whiffs with a power curve. Some managers in the league noted that Banuelos’ fastball command suffered because he overthrew, but others think it was a release point issue. “[Several] observers believed that his delivery will allow him to throw more strikes as he matures,” added Manuel.

Betances is referred to as a “physical beast who uses his size to sit at 91-95 mph and reach 97 with his fastball.” The report cites three secondary pitches: a power curve, a high-80’s cutter/slider, and a changeup that has “improved and is an above-average pitch at times.” The problem continues to be command, obviously. Romine is said to have a strong arm and “the hands, athletic ability and agility needed to be a sound receiver.” He’s a streaky hitter, and his batting practice power has yet to consistently show up in games.

The next and last top 20 list of interest to Yankees fans is the Triple-A International League, which will be posted Friday. Jesus Montero will certainly make an appearance somewhere high on the list, and a few of the arms (David Phelps and Adam Warren in particular) could get some love as well. Brandon Laird might even make an appearance.

The implications of Cervelli’s latest concussion

(Steve Ruark/Getty Images)

Thanks to various injuries, the Yankees used four different catchers in a span of 24 hours this weekend. On Saturday night, it was Russell Martin starting before Jorge Posada came in as an injury replacement. Sunday afternoon it was Jesus Montero with the starting assignment and Austin Romine doing the defensive replacement thing. Four catchers in two days, and not a single one of them was Frankie Cervelli.

The Yankees regular backup backstop is in New York, where tests confirmed a concussion as the result of a pair of home plate collisions on Thursday. The first collision with Nick Markakis was clearly the more devastating of the two; he led with the shoulder and caught Frankie right in the head. The picture above tells the entire story. Brain injuries and concussions are no joke, especially when we’re talking about multiple occurrences. Cervelli had at least three concussions from 2005-2010, the last one coming when he was hit in the head by pitch in Spring Training last season. This latest incident makes it at least four concussions in seven seasons.

With just 16 games left in the season, there’s a non-zero chance that we won’t see Frankie again until 2012. Head injuries are serious business and the Yankees will take every precaution, just like they have with Cervelli (and Posada) in the past. That leaves the team in a little bit of a bind, because they don’t have an obvious backup catcher to replace the King of the Fist Pumps. Posada caught his first game in almost a year this weekend, and it was only because it was an emergency. Montero was pulled for a defensive replacement, not exactly a ringing endorsement of his catching skills. Romine has fewer than 50 innings of catching experience above Double-A. None are ideal fits.

Thankfully, the schedule kinda helps the Yankees here, because they have such a big lead on a postseason spot and only a handful of games left to play. Montero and Romine can split catching duties for the next week or two and it won’t be that big of a deal, assuming Martin makes it back from his bruised thumb in a somewhat timely fashion. The Yankees shouldn’t rush him back, obviously, but as far as we know, it’s not anything more serious than a bruise and a cracked nail. Going into the postseason, you’d count on Martin catching every inning of every game, no doubt about it. There’s fewer off days this year but still enough to make catching everyday possible. That leaves Cervelli’s now vacant roster spot up in the air.

Barring something unforeseen, Montero figures to make the postseason roster at this point. He’d step right into Frankie’s roster spot, meaning that Cervelli’s latest concussion may have saved Posada’s playoff job. For all intents and purposes, the Yankees have been phasing Jorge out in the second half, but he could still serve as a pinch-hitter against right-handers and an emergency catcher in October. Montero would be the other emergency catcher, even if means losing the DH in a given game. I don’t think it’s out of the question that the Yankees could go into the postseason without a true backup catcher on the roster, which would be kinda neat and unconventional.

The x-factor here is Joe Girardi, who seems to love having a defense-first backup catcher (not that Cervelli was a Gold Glover back there). That could open the door for Romine to win a spot on the postseason bench, meaning the Yankees may end up taking only one of Montero or Posada. That is unless they decide against a pinch-running specialist like Chris Dickerson or Greg Golson. Or perhaps they go with a ten-man pitching staff, which would be a minor miracle. There’s a lot of variables in play here, and there are 16 games left to sort them all out. The key is Martin, if that thumb heals well and he can catch a full workload in October, it opens a lot of roster construction doors for the postseason.