The backstop dilemma

For the past decade-plus, Yankees fans have been blessed with Jorge Posada as their catcher. Over his career, he’s posted a triple slash of .275/.377/.479 (.856 OPS). He’s mashed 261 HR as a switch hitter while averaging 97 RBI each season. Since 1995, he’s managed to accumulate 46.0 WAR. In 2007, as a 35-year-old, the veteran backstop even posted a 5.8 WAR and was sixth in the league in MVP voting. Even in a “down” year for Posada, he still produced a .357 wOBA in 2010, and the Yankees have hugely benefited from Posada’s contributions from a premium up-the-middle defensive position over the years.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Posada will be turning 39 (which might as well be 100 in catcher years) and is entering the final year of his lofty 4-year/$52.4M contract. In each of the last few seasons Father Time has reared his ugly head at Posada as injuries became increasingly frequent. Don’t get me wrong; this is no knock on Jorge — he’s started a lot of games and physical decline is bound to happen. Unfortunately, although he might feel as if he has “plenty of juice in the tank” (like some other popular Yankees), reality suggests otherwise.

The original solution for prolonging Jorge’s physical longevity has always been simple and straightforward on the surface — provide him with additional rest. Unfortunately, each day that he sits on the bench represents another day that his bat doesn’t help the lineup. Yes, he has been able to contribute at times as a DH, but this creates entirely separate challenges altogether. So in 2007, the Yankees did the next best thing. They acquired a defensively oriented backstop, Jose Molina. He called smart pitches. He was trusted among some of the more temperamental members of the pitching staff, and he had that awesome snap throw to first. Every once and a great while, if the stars were aligned just so, he’d even collect a base hit.

In May 2009, Molina experienced a strained left quadriceps. Next up on the catcher hierarchy was a young kid named Francisco Cervelli. Over 101 plate appearances, he hit to a line of .298/.309/.372 (good for a 0.7 WAR). The pitching staff seemed to respond well to his style and it seemed as though the defense still retained its upgrade from the backup catcher role. In short, Cervelli was already more popular than frequent journeyman Kevin Cash and cheaper than just about anyone. As 2010 rolled around, the need for Jose Molina had long since diminished.

Unfortunately, 2010 brought about more injury for Posada, and though Cervelli stepped in and somehow unleashed a torrent of hot-hitting in April, we all knew it was far too good to last and by mid-May Cervelli plummeted back to earth. The more he was pressed into daily duty, the more exposed his offensive shortcomings became.

Cervelli ultimately put up a .271/.359/.335 line on the season thanks to his hot start (0.3 WAR on the season). However, his June through August numbers were simply abysmal. Worse yet, his defense (his primary responsibility as a backup) was arguably worse than Posada’s. For what it’s worth, his CS% was an anemic 14% against a league average of 30%. Even the much-maligned Posada threw out 15% of his baserunners.

The good news is that 2011 should provide the exciting moment that many of us have been eagerly awaiting: the arrival of Jesus Montero. The bad news is he’ll probably have a significant learning curve like most other rookies, both offensively and defensively. Not to mention the fact that his defensive ability is already questionable.

In an ideal scenario, Montero can at least match Posada’s offensive production. Even if he mirrors Jorge’s defense, I’d still be delighted. Right now, that’s wishful thinking and quite a long ways away. In the meantime, the Yankees are probably going to start the season with Posada as the primary catcher and Cervelli as the backup. Eventually, Montero will work himself into the mix. What I would really love to see the team do is get rid of Cervelli. Sign a cheap, defensively-inclined catcher to provide relief when the other two catchers aren’t playing. Let’s let our backup catchers catch, while Posada and Montero mash.

Our friends at TYU also recently posted their thoughts on the Yankees’ catching situation, so please also be sure to check out their take as well.

2 thoughts on “The backstop dilemma

  1. Anonymous

    The errors out of both backstops this year were unacceptable but I would fully expect Cervelli to be back next year as his defense will more than likely come back up to the level it was when he first came up. Catching Burnett doesn't make your job behind the plate easy as that guy does nothing to help the catchers out at all. Posada's bat which is now in free fall is best suited as DH and Montero should platoon at catcher with Cervelli and even catch more than Cervelli if possible as Cerv is more than likely a career back up, which should be fine moving forward.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Anon-Here's the thing. I'm not convinced Cervelli's defense dropped anywhere this season. Rather, I suspect his defense has always been pretty lousy. He just didn’t have enough opportunity in 2009 to have his shortcomings thoroughly exposed. I completely agree with you that catching AJ only exasperates any troubles he might already have though.As much as I hate the idea, you're probably right about Cervelli sticking around for a while longer. My guess is he will remain with the team until the organization is confident in Montero or whoever else is backing up Posada. Signing a different catcher who is actually defensively oriented is probably wishful thinking.

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