Thursday, March 24, 2011

New York Yankees First Look: Catchers in the NY, Martin, Montero and Cervelli

While the Yankees' worst problem may be their starting pitching, their best problem is certainly their logjam of talent at catcher. The position has been Jorge Posada's for so long that many young fans have no idea who he took the job from, even though he is sitting in the dugout managing the team today.

Playing catcher puts the most wear on a baseball player, squatting, being in the way of a leather cannonball traveling at 95 mph and colliding with baserunners tends to put a half life on a career that is more Pu-242 than Pu-241.

I'd say this is U-235, more of a left fielder.

So the Yankees want to go in another direction with the position to extend Posada's productivity at the plate and to prepare for the future of the position. Enter Montero ... er, Cervelli. No wait, Russel Martin.

Martin appears to be the forerunner to start at catcher when the season begins. In 2008, he was a two-time All-Star, batting .280 and coming off a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger season in 2007. Then something happened. While Martin was still a highly capable defensive catcher, throwing out 39% of would-be base-stealers last season, his bat has not followed suit. Last year in an injury-shortened season, Martin could only manage to hit .248 and drove in 26 runs. Martin tore the labrum in his hip early in August of last year and missed the rest of last season, then came to New York as a free agent when the Cliff Lee money became available.

At $4 million dollars, if Martin can return to his pre-2009 form, he will be a great bargain. Catcher is a shallow position, and finding one that will not be a black hole  in the lineup is rare in the best of seasons. Also, Yankees fans rejoice, because through the age of 27, claims Martin is most comparable historically to Thurman Munson. It is just a shame that comparison is not visual.

Wasn't Munson a character in "Animal House"?

Francisco Cervelli actually started more games at catcher than did Posada last season. I remember feeling especially confident whenever he came to the plate with runners in scoring position, and the numbers back that confidence up. While a .271 hitter the rest of the year, that number jumped to .316 with runners in scoring position, then jumped to .381 with runners in scoring position with two outs, and finally jumped again to .545 with the bases loaded.

Cervelli is a scrappy, unheralded game-changer on a team of highly paid and media hyped superstars, and there is something very endearing about that. In a perfect world, he would have a small cult following of fans who call themselves "Cisco's Kids", who know off the top of their heads that his career range factor through 9 innings would put him 5th among active catchers if he hit the 1000 inning minimum, (He is 21 innings shy of eligibility. Also, Russell Martin is 2nd on this same list.), and wear his jersey over a Mexican caballero outfit.

 Dude, where's your jersey? I thought I was pretty specific.

Cervelli also has the best feel for the AL East, having been calling games there for the last two seasons. Experience is the best commodity for being a game-calling field general, and while Cervelli does not have have it in spades, he does have the most of the three signal callers we are looking at, although it seems obvious that Jorge Posada will be sharing his wealth of knowledge with each.

Jesus Montero is the much-ballyhooed prospect that has recently been rated No. 4 overall. He is 6'4", which many consider too tall to crouch behind the plate for one's entire career. (Joe Mauer is 6'5" and at 27 has already began to face the strain that comes with the position.)

The kid can hit though, batting .289 with 21 home runs at AAA Scranton last season. Many fans feel that Montero would be better suited to play left field or first base when not DHing. He has not done much to silence critics this spring, hitting .222 with no home runs. The NY Daily News has called his catching defense "not major league ready," and believe the Yankees will send him back down to AAA to work more on his hitting and defense.

He is still called a can't-miss slugger, and could use some big-league reps, but the window on the Yankee dynasty of the late-90'-00's is closing with Jeter, Rivera and Posada's age and the fact that Andy Petitte has already retired. The team came within spitting distance of the World Series last season, and making it this year is not out of the question, but getting struggling youngsters with potential their reps comes at a costthat I do not believe the Yankees are willing to pay right now.

Based on all this I believe the Yankees are doing the right thing starting Martin and using Cervelli as a backup. Martin is still of high potential and has proven to me a more than capable All-Star in the past, and a change of scenery may be all that he needs. If it does not work out, we can always plug Cervelli back in. Asking Posada to catch for a few games this season is also not out of the question. Montero will be called up this season at some point, but barring injury, it should not be as a catcher yet ... if at all. The team wants to win this year and or next year for the 90's vets, and I would prefer Montero hitting for 15 years instead of catching for 10.

I've said my piece, but with so many combinations, how would you juggle the catching position? I'm fairly certain the Yankees brass are regular readers, and they will certainly take this to heart.

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