Catcher in the NYY

One of the things I really enjoy about being a part of the team here at this site is the conversations all the writers have in our e-mail strings. I work here with very cool people. One of the many topics we have all talked about is what the Yankees will do at the catching position in 2014. Pretty much all of us do not want a repeat of 2013 which was a black hole year for Yankee catching. And I think the consensus is that Chris Stewart is not the guy who should continue to be the Yankees’ Number One catcher. There are two good options on the free agent market. Should the Yankees pursue that avenue? If not, then what are the other options available to the team?

“Black hole” aptly describes the Yankees’ catching statistics for 2013. As a group, the 2013 catching corp finished with the following triple slash line: .213/.289/.298. That adds up to a lovely .587 OPS. Yeesh. At least they out-performed the DH position at the plate, but that is another article for another time.

Perhaps I speak for most observers about our feelings when Chris Stewart came to the plate. There was little hope of any kind of positive outcome. And usually the words, “Oh,” and an expletive were involved. Stewart finished the season with a .270 slugging percentage. His .565 OPS was awful. Those numbers were not offset enough by his defensive skills, touted by many, but still leading up to only 0.5 total fWAR in 109 games or 0.6 rWAR if you prefer that site’s numbers.

Stewart did throw out 31% of base steal attempts, but his success rate (I do not have the numbers) seemed to diminish in that area as the season went along. He also allowed 12 passed balls, the second highest total in the league and 34 wild pitches. He still managed to score 2.7 runs above average in blocking balls in the dirt. The Yankee pitchers must throw the ball all over the place.

Anyway, without justifying anything further, less than a win gained in 109 games just does not cut it for a starting catcher. And after over 750 big league plate appearances, this is who Chris Stewart is–a backup catcher.

If Stewart is not the guy, then what should the Yankees do? There are three free agent options: Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and A.J. Pierzynski. The former would be a multiple-year proposition and the latter a one-year stop-gap. The middle does not appeal to me at all. There are too many strikeouts and though he rates well statistically on defense, his work seems sloppy. Heck, the Red Sox benched him in the World Series and then the Red Sox set him free. All three would be an improvement offensively. But at what cost?

Pierzynski will command something in the range of $7 million, or a little less than what he made with the Rangers last year. He is 37 years old. His two advantages as a hitter are that he makes contact and has some home run power. His glaring offensive weakness is that his 3.98 career walk percentage looks great against the 2.1% rate he walked at in 2013. Pierzynski incredibly walked only eleven times in 529 plate appearances. Because of this, his on-base percentage was virtually identical to Chris Stewart’s.

Pierzynski is still a good catcher defensively. He is not Molina great, but he will not hurt you behind the plate. He is a decent one-year option. But here is the thing for me. He would basically cost six or more million more than Stewart and his 1.6 fWAR only gives the Yankees an extra win for those $6 mil. Plus, he is a hard guy to get warm an fuzzy about as a fan.

Brian McCann would be considerably more expensive. He will command in the $12 to $15 million range for a minimum of three years. He is a terrific offensive catcher with power and is decent enough defensively. He has post season experience but other than the 2010 NLDS, has not hit well in the post season. Plus he will cost a draft pick.

McCann has posted 5.7 rWAR over the last three seasons with some health problems along the way. That averages to 1.9 wins a season, so the Yankees would effectively be gaining 1.3 or 1.4 wins over Chris Stewart for a minimum of $12 million. That is a lot of money for that little gained.

The other problem of signing McCann to a three year deal is that the Yankees have strong catching prospects in Gary Sanchez and Peter O’Brien, not to mention J.R. Murphy and Austin Romine. It is the franchise’s one position of strength in the system. Sanchez resurrected his prospect status with a solid season at Trenton and O’Brien hit 22 homers in A and A+ ball.

Austin Romine looked totally lost after Francisco Cervelli went down and Romine became the Number Two catcher. But he did come on in the second half of the season. He posted a .750 OPS after the All-Star Break. Romine will not hurt you behind the plate either.

Joe Girardi also liked what he saw from J.R. Murphy in his brief call-up from the Yankees. Murphy also does not cost you anything behind the plate and was decent offensively in the minors. Neither Murphy or Romine project to have home run pop and both are right-handed batters.

So what should the Yankees do? Francisco Cervelli looked great before he got hurt last year and then was suspended for 50 games as everyone knows. Did that suspension end his Yankee career? Why should it? He got caught and paid his time. The thought here is to bring Cervelli and Romine into camp and let them fight for the top spot and the loser gets the bench position. Start J.R. Murphy in Triple A and if Cervelli falters (or gets hurt again), then he would be the next option.

A combination of two of those three catchers should be better offensively than Stewart, be cheaper than Pierzynski and will not block an ascension of either Sanchez or O’Brien.

While the Yankees and the team’s fans are conditioned historically to fix a problem with free agent signings, the feeling here is that the bang for the buck is not there and McCann would cost a valuable draft pick and the Yankees should be able to make something work between Cervelli, Romine and Murphy that will be far more appealing than what went down in 2013.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

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