Like it or not, Molina likely to catch in playoffs

The past week has seen debate over what the Yanks should do with their ALDS roster construction. Which 10 pitchers should they carry? Should they add Freddy Guzman? Francisco Cervelli? None of these is the most important question — the one that will have the most impact on one or multiple games. No, that question is of playing time at catcher. We’ve seen some speculation that Jose Molina could catch A.J. Burnett, and given some of Girardi’s comments last night, it appears that will be the case. From Feinsand:

“We haven’t come up with any final decisions on how we’re going to do things,” Girardi said. “Jose is possibly going to play an important role next week, so we wanted to get him some at-bats.”

I don’t think that “an important role” means catching the eighth and ninth if the Yanks pinch run for Posada. No, “an important role” would appear to mean starting catcher. So for those who are vehemently against Molina seeing any playing time next week, commence flipping out.

I’m not necessarily against the move. If it makes Burnett pitch better, I’m actually all for it. The problem is that I don’t think there’s any certainty in that. Are we guaranteed a good Burnett start with Molina behind the plate? If so, start him. If there’s no guarantee, though, and there’s really not any objective way to say there is, then I have to question the decision to take either Jorge’s or Matsui’s bat out of the lineup.

The A.J. and Jose show

As Juan Miranda‘s line drive literally off of Kyle Farnsworth escaped the Royals’ fielders and Eric Hinske scampered to the plate, the Yankees came together last night to celebrate their 15th walk-off win of the season. Juan Miranda became the latest victim of the Walk-Off Pie, and with their 102nd win, the Yanks opened a season-high 10.5-game lead over the Red Sox.

Lost in the feel-good defeat of a much-maligned former Yankee was another solid start by A.J. Burnett. Joe touched upon Burnett’s outing in the recap, but it warrants a closer look. Burnett went 6.1 innings, and he didn’t give up much. The Royals managed to plate two runs — one earned — on three hits and three walks. Burnett struck out eight on the night.

For A.J., last night’s outing was another in a string of good September starts. After a rough five weeks in August and September, Burnett has now surrendered four earned runs over his last 19 innings. He has surrendered 17 hits and just nine walks in that span while striking out 25. In fact, if we look at Burnett’s bad start against the Orioles, we see that, after surrendering a grand slam to Brian Roberts, Burnett was nearly untouchable. That day, he retired 17 of the last 19 batters he faced and threw 5.2 one-hit innings.

If we head back to Sept. 8, we see yet another good A.J. Burnett start. Against Tampa, he threw six innings and allowed one run on four hits and three walks. He also struck out eight that day. So over his last five starts, he has thrown 32 innings with a 2.81 ERA and has given up 28 hits and 14 walks while striking out 37. That’s not too shabby for a second or third starter.

There is, however, a downside to A.J.’s success. As Steve Lombardi concisely puts it in a color-coded post, Burnett’s success has come with Jose Molina behind the plate. Throughout September, Molina has been A.J.’s caddy. In August, during A.J.’s bad starts — an early August debacle against the White Sox and a late August shellacking by the Red Sox — Jorge Posada was catching.

And so we fear what this means. As Joe speculated last week, it appears as though Joe Girardi will pair up A.J. Burnett and Jose Molina during the playoffs. Jorge Posada would ride the bench and be available to come into the game the minute Burnett is removed. The Yanks, however, contend that Posada sat out not due to A.J.’s pitching but because of his sore neck. I report; you decide.

It’s hard to stress how much of an offensive blackhole Molina has been this year. His hit today broke an 0-for-19 streak, and his triple slash line is .215/.295/.262. Jorge, meanwhile, is hitting .290/.369/.534. Molina’s VORP is currently -6.7; Jorge’s is 35.1. Molina has contributed -9.0 runs above (below?) average at the plate while Jorge’s contribution is a positive 19.7. Get the picture?

Joe Girardi can get cute with the lineup if he wants to. It is, after all, his team. If he honestly and truly believes that A.J. Burnett is that much better of a pitcher with Jose Molina behind the plate, then so be it. I remain skeptical and shudder to see the lineup card when Burnett takes the mound next week in Game 2 or 3 of the ALDS.

First Half Review: Catchers

At 51-37, with the third best record in baseball, leading the Wild Card and just three games back in the AL East, the Yankees had a fine first half. Yet it was a tumultuous three months, wrought with streaks and injuries and strange trends, causing mass panic at times among Yankees fans. Over the extended All-Star Break, we’ll go over each position to see what went right, what went wrong, and how things look for the second half. We already looked at the starting pitchers, relievers, and corner infielders, so now it’s time to take a look at the catchers.

The expectations

The catching situation in 2008 was a mess once Jorge Posada went down with a major shoulder injury. Jose Molina was terrific defensively but was exposed offensively when playing every day, and a midseason trade for Ivan Rodriguez proved fruitless. As a result of the dismal showing last year, it was hard to expect anything but an upgrade this year. Sure, there were concerns about Jorge Posada’s ability to control the running game with this surgically repaired shoulder, but his bat was never in question. With Molina set to return to his usual backup duty, there was cause for optimism coming into this year.

The results

Yankee catchers have put up a .280-.335-.444 batting line, good for the fourth best OPS in the league even with Jorge Posada missing just about four weeks with a hamstring issue. When Jose Molina went down with a similar injury, straight outta Double-A Frankie Cervelli performed better that anyone could have ever expected on both sides of the ball.

Considering the team lost its top two backstops to injury at the same time, it’s impressive that the catching in the Bronx still ranks among the best in the league. Let’s talk about some of the individual pieces now.

Jorge Posada

If anything, last year’s injury reminded all of us just how important Jorge Posada is to the Yankees. He’s proven that his shoulder is fully healed by throwing out 20 of 67 potential basestealers, or 29.1%. That percentage is basically the same as the 29.5% gun-down rate Posada posted in his career before the shoulder started giving him trouble last year.

Offensively, Posada is producing at pretty much the same pace as always. While no one was expecting him to repeat his monster .338-.426-.543 season in 2007, Posada has again been an above-average producer behind the plate with a .285-.369-.508 line. As he goes the Yankees go.

Jose Molina

The best backup catcher the Yankees have had in some time, Molina’s defense seems to have taken a slight step back this year (just 25% of basestealers have been thrown out, well below his 41.4% career mark coming into ’09) and you wonder if playing just about everyday last year is taking its toll on him now. Molina missed two months with a strained hamstring, but has quietly hit .271-.340-.375 when he has played. As always, Molina’s still at his best when he plays once every four days.

Frankie Cervelli

The new golden boy, Cervelli arrived from Double-A Trenton with dreamy eyes and a .190 AVG when Posada and Molina went down, and exceeded every possible expectation. He’s thrown out 10 of 21 potential basestealers (47.6%) and moved around behind the plate exceptionally well. Even though he hit just .269-.284-.346, Cervelli always seemed to put together quality at-bats and never failed to hustle down the line. A fan favorite, Cervelli was sent down to Triple-A to play every day once Posada and Molina returned to the full strength. His play over his two-month cameo all but earned him the backup catcher job for next year.

Expectations for the second half

I guess you could say the biggest expectation for the second half sn’t really an expectation at all, just hope that Jorge Posada remains healthy. He’s such an important part of the team both in the lineup and in the clubhouse. If he stays on the field, the Yankees will have arguably the most productive catcher in the majors (non-Mauer division), always a significant advantage. Molina and third stringer Cervelli provide adequate backup, but are a significant drop-off if pressed into everyday duty.

The Yankees have enviable catching depth at the moment, but just like pitching depth it can vanish in an instant. As an ex-catcher, I’m sure manager Joe Girardi will pay special attention to the workload Posada endures the rest of the season. Just stay healthy, that’s all we want. The rest will take care of itself.

On the composition of the bench

With Xavier Nady out for the rest of the season, the Yankees’ roster picture has become clearer. Whereas before they were awaiting the return of a player who would add depth, now they know that player is not coming. The Yankees have a number of options moving forward, both for the immediate future and in preparation for the July 31st trade deadline.

Starting in the present, PeteAbe reports that Jose Molina will return in about a week. The Yankees could do one of three things:

  1. Carry three catchers and option Ramiro Pena to Scranton
  2. Option Cervelli to Scranton
  3. DFA Jose Molina

Let’s rule out the third option, since it’s not at all likely. If they release Molina and Posada gets hurt, they’d be stuck with Cervelli and Cash instead of Cervelli and Molina. The latter is preferable. Cervelli isn’t that much better than Molina, anyway — if he’s better at all, which at this point I’m not about to declare.

Carrying three catchers would mean Jorge Posada is the de facto DH. Pete says that Jorge isn’t “going to be the DH because the Yankees aren’t releasing or trading Hideki Matsui.” Yet this scenario would allow them to start one of Cervelli and Molina, use Matsui as a pinch hitter, and then substitute the other, with Posada still available as an emergency. It’s certainly not the most efficient use of roster space. This option is also unlikely, unless the Yankees are more concerned about Jorge’s health than they let on.

This leaves optioning Cervelli to Scranton. By all appearances, this is what will happen. He’ll get regular reps at AAA in preparation of taking over for Molina in 2010. Meanwhile, he serves as an insurance policy in case either Molina or Posada go down again. Yes, it’s nice to have him around, and I can see why everyone is high on him, but let’s not let his personality overshadow his ability. Right now, there’s no harm in having him in AAA.

Pete also brings up another notion: option both Cervelli and Pena, and opt to bring up a better bat off the bench. Once Molina returns, the bench will be him, Cody Ransom, Gardner/Cabrera, and Ramiro Pena. There’s not exactly a bopper in there. True, Pena can serve as a late-inning pinch-runner, especially if Gardner starts. Pete suggests recalling Shelley Duncan or John Rodriguez. I’m not so sure.

Over whom in the starting lineup would Shelley Duncan be an upgrade? In other words, for whom would he pinch-hit? Maybe Gardner or Carbera, but even that’s debatable. The league seemingly figured out Shelley after 32 plate appearances — he started his career .321/.406/.857 in 32 PA and finished the season with a .217/.280/.370 run in 51 PA, plus his .175/.262/.281 in 65 PA last year. In theory it would be nice to have Shelley Duncan on the bench — if Shelley Duncan would actually represent an upgrade. Maybe he can provide a short-term burst of production, but he’s not someone who should be on the roster August 31.

As it stands, the Yankees might just be better off keeping both Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena on the bench. Pena can play multiple positions and has some wheels. Ransom also plays many positions. They have four outfielders, and Matsui in an emergency situation. Since they don’t have someone on the farm who can provide an upgrade in a pinch-hitting situation, it’s tough to call on such a move. Again, since the team has some flexibility with Pena they could give it a shot, but they shouldn’t expect much from either Shelley or J-Rod.

This leads to the longer-term lookout, i.e., the rest of the season. Could the Yanks pull a trade for an outfield bat? Someone who could, perhaps, provide a platoon partner for Matsui against tough lefties and buy some days or half-days off for the other outfielders? Perhaps. Steve Lombardi wants a more consistent alternative to Nick Swisher. Says he:

Don’t get me wrong. I know that Swisher works counts and gets walks. And, when he’s hot, Swisher can hit the ball out of the park. But, when he’s cold, he’s beyond ice cold. And, at times, Swisher takes some curious routes on fly balls. Basically, when he’s bad, the Swish Hawk is “T-Long Like.”

While I’m an unabashed Swisher fan, I’m not going to stick my fingers in my ears and ignore his shortcomings. He does have some pretty bad cold streaks, and it would be nice to have someone to give him some time off during them. What’s that worth, though? Can the Yankees get the import (because the answer is not in the system currently) at a reasonable enough price? Can they get him enough playing time to justify the price? Those questions will be clearer as the Xs mount in July and we get closer to the 31st.

For right now, the Yanks can afford to stand pat. There is no pressing need to make a roster move. If the Yankees want to give it a whirl with Shelley or J-Rod, they can do so with minimal risk. If they want to keep things how they are and have two multi-position players, one who can run, on the bench, they can do that. It just goes to show that when you have a solid starting nine, a bench becomes far less important.

Nady cleared to play in Extended Spring

PeteAbe, writing for his actual paper and not the blog, notes that injured outfielder Xavier Nady has been cleared to play in Extended Spring Training. Nady will (or did) begin playing today. I’m assuming that Nady will just DH for the time being, but it’s progress nonetheless. The Yanks begin the NL park portion of their interleague schedule on June 19th, and you can bet they want to have that extra bat available off the bench by then. Alex Rodriguez spent about ten days rehabbing (a far different injury) in EST before returning to the lineup earlier this month. So I’m hopeful that Nady can make it back in time for mid-June.

Pete also mentions that Jorge Posada, Jose Molina and Cody Ransom started working out in Tampa yesterday. Posada could see some game action later in the week. Hip hip, Jorge. (h/t TYU)

What to do when Jorge and Molina return?

This morning, PeteAbe asked a question that is on many Yanks fans’ minds right now: “Do you keep Francisco Cervelli around when Jose Molina comes back?” Cervelli has been impressive in his short tenure. He’s played solid defense, has shown rare speed for a catcher, and hasn’t killed the team with his bat. The latest, of course, is subject to a small sample, but it’s reasonable to think he’d hit as well as Jose Molina, with the added benefit of some speed.

Dave Pinto later added his commentary:

Given that Cervelli and Molina should have about the same poor offensive production long term, I’d keep Cervelli and let Molina go. Francisco appears to be a capable defensive catcher, just like Jose. He does bring one thing to the table that makes him superior, however, and that’s speed. Cervelli’s legs haven’t worn out from catching yet, and he’s not an automatic out on a tough ground ball. It’s a small edge, but one the Yankees should take.

This takes the argument to a whole new level. Release Molina in favor of keeping Cervelli on the 25-man? That seems a bit harsh. Our own Mike A. provides the retort in Pinto’s comments: “Given that Posada isn’t a surefire bet to stay healthy, the Yanks aren’t in a position to let a quality backup catcher like Molina go just because some rook had a hot 40 plate appearances.”

The beginning of Mike’s statement says it all. Yes, Jorge will return to the lineup soon, but there is no guarantee that he’ll remain healthy for the remainder of the season. And in reality, Molina’s no guarantee either. The Yanks need to keep their options open in case something happens in July or August.

There is little chance the Yanks take anything but the safe road when their catchers return. Jorge figures to be back first, and for him the Yanks will option Cervelli. Why not DFA Cash? Again, because it’s no lock that Jorge remains healthy. If he succumbs to another injury the Yanks can simply recall Cervelli to take his place. It’s the easiest and safest way to deal with this situation.

Then, when Molina returns, the team can DFA Cash. Perhaps he re-signs, perhaps he tries his luck with another organization. In any case, that brings the Yanks back to where they started the season. If, in a stroke of poor luck, the Yanks lose both Jorge and Molina again, they’d recall Cervelli and then likely add P.J. Pilittere. If one goes down Cervelli is just a phone call away.

Yanks fans have grown fond of Cervelli, but thankfully the front office has a more objective measure of the team. They’re not going to expose themselves to an injury risk just to keep around a kid who’s performed well in a small sample. Posada – Molina is the ideal tandem at the moment. If something happens to one of them, the Yanks would still have options. However, if they fall in love with Cervelli and Posada gets hurt, their options are markedly reduced. Frankie will be the backup next year. This year, there’s no reason to keep him around if the team’s primary catchers are healthy.

First round of Friday roster moves

We expected the Yankees to make a number of roster moves today, and via RotoWorld we find the first of them (you might have to scroll down, depending on when you see this). On the ledger now: Melancon down, Molina disabled, Cash up. With two players removed from the 25-man roster, that leaves one for A-Rod. However, purchasing Kevin Cash’s requires a 40-man roster move. That will more than likely be the DFAing of Angel Berroa, which would open up yet another 25-man spot. Here’s to hoping that Juan Miranda gets the call to deepen the bench a bit. He’d be valuable as a PH with two backup catchers on the roster.