Looking at the Yankees’ future at catcher

As Brien mentioned, the Yankees job for starting catcher is up for grabs right now. Russell Martin‘s contract was for one year and the Yankees have yet to indicate whether they plan to resign him. This year they sent a pretty clear signal that they do not view Francisco Cervelli as a viable option, while they groom their next backstop of the future. First, they traded for Chris Stewart at the end of Spring Training, sending Cervelli to the wandering Empire State Yankees and then only gave him three at bats and a handful of innings behind the plate after being called-up in September. While thinking about this potential hole in their lineup, it struck me that the Yankees have found themselves in a place many of us thought they would avoid, given their penchant for drafting and developing some strong catching prospects.

For much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Yankees had a solid starting catcher behind home plate. This can be attributed in part to the Jorge Posada‘s arrival in the majors, first as a backup and later as one of the Yankees’ key players during their impressive string of playoff runs and World Series titles.  As Posada’s career neared the end, Yankees fans saw few reasons to be concerned, after all, we had been hearing about Jesus Montero for years.  It was understood that there were many questions about Montero’s ability to be a serviceable major league catcher, however, his offense was what excited people. After all, if Montero proved unable to work out defensively, the Yankees had Austin Romine right behind him. Now, Montero finds himself in Seattle, having been traded for Michael Pineda, a move that will likely be hotly debated at least until the young hurler finally dons pinstripes on a mound at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees signed Martin to fill the gap between Posada and the prospects, but after a hot start Martin has seen mixed results during the past season and a half, often garnering a lot of frustration and discussion from fans this past season. Meanwhile, Romine spent the bulk of the season on the DL, after injuring his back during Spring Training and suffering multiple setbacks, making it hard to know just when/if he will be ready for the Bronx. As I mentioned earlier, the Yankees have made it a habit to draft some strong, offensively-minded catchers and they have quite a few working their way up the ladder. So, while we will have to wait and see what Brian Cashman decides to do behind the plate in 2013, let’s take a look at who and where the potential Yankee backstops of the future are now.

Austin Romine:
As I already mentioned, Romine was knocking on the Bronx’s door heading into Spring Training this season.  After hitting .286/.351/.378 in Trenton in 2011, Romine was set to be the Empire State catcher this season, with a shot to make the big league club. Instead, he injured his back during Spring Training and appeared in just 31 games in the minors this season, with almost half of them in the GCL and Tampa. This injury isn’t just concerning due to the amount of time Romine missed in 2012, but because he suffered some similar problems in 2011. If he can get past these injury problems, Romine is a good defensive catcher with a strong arm. He has good discipline at the plate and will smack some doubles, though he could still improve his power stroke. At this point, it is hard to know when he may make it to the majors, though I suspect he will start 2013 in Scranton.

J.R. Murphy:
Murphy put together a strong showing Charleston in 2011, garnering himself some attention despite Montero, Romine and Gary Sanchez. He hit .297/.343/.457 with a wRC+ of 117, before being promoted to Tampa at the end of the season. This season, he started off in Tampa and was solid, though he couldn’t replicate his previous success at the plate, hitting .257/.322/.374. Murphy got the call to move up to Trenton during the second part of the season where he struggled some. It has been a pattern, however, that Murphy struggles upon first being called up and he has often been able to adjust to the new level and put together a strong performance the following season.

Murphy takes a very mature approach at the plate, with good discipline and patience. He has potential to develop power, but should be able to hit for average. Where he may set himself apart from many of the other Yankee catching prospects is that he appears to have turned into a strong defensive catcher. He was originally a third baseman, but in 2011 started to come into his own behind the plate. Murphy has been lauded for his strong leadership and work ethic, which has paid off as he improves his arm strength, game calling and all around defense. At the moment, he kind of strikes me as a younger and healthier Romine type player, which could make things interesting over the next year or two.

Gary Sanchez:
In many ways, Sanchez took over for Montero after the Seattle trade. The young catcher is a very exciting prospect and is still quite young.  We have seen some of the fall out of what happens when you have a young guy who is flying through the lower levels, when he had some attitude issues last year. Whether those problems are a thing of the past is hard to know, but he appeared to get through this year without any controversy. In fact, Sanchez had a good season, starting the year in Charleston where he hit .297/.353/.517 with a wOBA of .390 and a wRC+ of 136. He was promoted to Tampa and looked strong theree, hitting .279/.330/.436 over 48 games with a .351 wOBA and 118 wRC+.

Kiley McDaniel has a great write-up on Sanchez for Fangraphs that I highly recommend.  McDanield notes some of the adjustments Sanchez has been working on, something he had not had to do often as he has dominated his competition prior to this season. Sanchez’s power potential continues to be exciting, but his tools are still raw and he is working on quieting his swing.  Much like Montero, however, as Sanchez moves up the ladder we are beginning to hear more and more about his inability to stick behind the plate. I remember seeing reports early on that described him as Montero but with the opportunity to stick at catcher. These days it seems like people are wary about whether he will succeed in being a major league backstop, but they also recognize the improvements he has made. McDaniel comment that “At times, Sanchez’s body language indicates he isn’t too interested in catching but the Yankees would be foolish to move him until they’re certain the 19 year old can’t improve any further behind the dish.” The latter part of this statement is obvious, but the former stuck out to me, as I have seen similar statements elsewhere. I’m not quite sure what to make it, quite frankly, but it should still be interesting to see how Sanchez progresses.

Greg Bird/Peter O’Brien:
Drafted by the Yankees last year, Bird was scouted by most teams as a first baseman, but the Yankees were intent on keeping him at catcher. Unfortunately, he had some back problems this year, spending some time on the DL. He made most of his starts at first and DH, so we will have to wait until next year to see whether he is still a viable catching alternative. Regardless, the left-handed power hitter has another big bat that the Yankees are excited to watch develop. He crushed the ball when for the short time he spent in Staten Island, hitting .400/.489/.650 over eleven games and 47 plate appearances. Bird is athletic enough that he may be able to stick at catcher, but he seems to fit this mold of Yankee catching prospects who can swing an impressive bat but are destined for another spot on the field.

O’Brien was this year’s second round pick and is very similar to Bird. He spent some time on the DL this year with a hand fracture, so he wasn’t able to put in much time behind the plate, but he is expected to make the change to first sooner rather than later. While many other prospects seem to show some potential for working out at catcher, even if it seems unlikely, O’Brien’s lack of athleticism, slow feet and below-average hands are a lot to get over. Still, he has a strong bat and received some high praise from Staten Island manager Justin Pope, who thinks the young slugger has a “big-time future.”

It’s good to know the Yankees have some interesting prospects at catcher, but how many of them stick back there is looking like a big question mark. What do you all think? Does this make you feel better/worse about the Yankees current major league catching situation?

About Tamar Chalker

Tamar has written for IIATMS since July 2009, having started off writing game recaps before shifting to the minor leagues. Born in Connecticut and having lived all over the country and in South Korea, Tamar now finds herself "temporarily misplaced" in New Hampshire. Please send help - I can pay you in maple syrup.

8 thoughts on “Looking at the Yankees’ future at catcher

  1. The report on Sanchez' defense is pretty much in contradiction to everything else that I've read this year. Not to say that he's made amazing strides over the course of one year, but the general consensus seems to be that he's making improvemens and looks more like he'll be able to stick at the position.

    • I think you are right, but I have actually seen a few reports at the end of the season taking this same stance on Sanchez's defense, which i thought was strange. They all say he has improved and he is still very young, so I think he will be fine, but I have been surprised at how negative some of the reports I have seen are, despite his improvements. I'm wondering if they are just being more critical now that he is working his way up further through the system.

      Comments about his "body language" and being unsure he wants to catch have also stood out to me, but they sound kind of bogus, in my opinion. Give me something specific that shows he isn't "interested in catching" or whatever.

  2. I'm sorry, but it's hard to me to get excited about any of these guys right now. None of them other than Romine is anywhere near the bigs. Given the recent history of Yankee top prospects getting as far as AAA and either making it no farther or regressing backwards, I'll reserve judgment for awhile.

  3. Has Kyle Higashioka ever shown any potential? Why have they kept him as long as they have?

    • Unfortunately, he has never shown much of anything with his bat. He only played in 44 games this year and hit .170/.228/.327 between Trenton and Tampa.