One of the trickiest areas to address this off season is the Yankee Catcher position. As we all saw during the ALDS, an aggressive base running team like the Rangers can expose the Yankee defensive deficiencies and is a major problem in the playoffs. It’s becoming generally accepted that 39 year old Jorge Posada will see less time at the position next year, yet most Yankee observers think Francisco Cervelli can’t hit enough to play the position full time.
This has led many fans to the notion that super-prospect Jesus Montero could be the answer. It’s already being discussed, Brian Cashman said this at his year end press conference:
“I do have people who believe he is ready at the catching position with a tremendous offensive bat,” Cashman said. “But nothing gets handed to somebody. You have to take it and earn it. He’ll have a chance to come to spring training and fight for something, and he’ll either show he is ready for something at a higher level or not.”
There’s little question his bat is ready. The issue with Montero has always been his glove, especially at a defense-intensive position like Catcher. BP’s Kevin Goldstien recently had this to say about Montero:
Some would argue that Montero is the best pure hitter in the minors, as the 20-year-old hit .351/.396/.684 during the second half of the season for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Despite his tender age, he’s big-league ready, and now the question is where he’ll play on the field. He’s made great strides behind the plate, but the upgrade is merely from embarrassing to simply bad. Few scouts see him as an upgrade over the slow, deficient and aging Posada. No matter where Montero ends up, the bat is going to play in the middle of the order for one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball.—Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
I always weight the opinions of outside observers over those you hear coming from the team, since teams have an obvious interest in promoting their own prospects for trade purposes. The fact that Montero has been dangled twice in potential deals (Halladay/Lee) makes me suspect the internal evaluation of Montero is much closer to BPs than it is to what the Yanks say publicly. As such, a platoon of Posada-Montero looks like a license to steal for the American League. That won’t go over well with the Yankee manager, who himself was a defensive-oriented Catcher and will have much to say about how these pieces are employed. It also won’t go over well with the Yankee pitchers, some of whom have had their issues with Jorge throughout the years. Hard throwers like CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Joba Chamberlain need a backstop who can block their hard breaking pitches in the dirt, and the aging Posada and unathletic Montero both suffer in that area.
This leads us to Cervelli, who is an uninspiring option in the eyes of most Yankee fans, and for good reason. His bat is weak, posting an .694 OPS for the 2010 season in half a season (314 PAs) worth of work. After a strong 2009 where he threw out 43% of baserunners, he followed that in 2010 with a piddling 14% caught stealing rate, which was even worse than Posada’s rate of 15%. Some of that is certainly due to being AJ Burnett’s personal catcher, since AJ makes little to no effort to hold runners on and gives Cervelli little chance. All reports I’ve seen have Cervelli with better ‘pop times’ than Posada (time it takes to catch and throw to 2nd) so we shouldn’t read into this that Cervelli is worse at throwing out baserunners than Jorge is. But suffice to say that neither Yankee Catcher was able to control the running game last year, and teams noticed this and those who had the skills to take advantage, did. Futher, Cervelli wasn’t much better than Jorge at blocking the plate. He allowed just two passed balls in 2010 but a whopping 35 wild pitches while Posada allowed 32, so neither Yankee catcher was able to block the plate with any effectiveness last season. To put these numbers in some context, Miguel Olivo led Baseball with 49 WP as an everyday Catcher. Defensive liability Victor Martinez threw out 22% of baserunners. If you put both Jorge and Cervelli’s numbers together, they would have been at the bottom of baseball in CS%, and led in wild pitches and passed balls among qualifying players at their position.
Some have suggested importing a free agent like John Buck on a 1 year deal, but he’s not exactly a defensive specialist either. The teams that have given the Yanks the most trouble in recent years are the ones that run the bases aggressively. For years, the Angels gave the Yankee all sorts of trouble by running all over them, and now the Rays and Rangers have picked up where they left off. What’s worse, there doesn’t appear to be a solution at hand for the 2011 campaign. Brian Cashman will need to work the phones to find himself a catch and throw backstop if the Yanks hope to reverse this trend anytime soon.