Now that Cano and Swish have had their options exercised, CC has been extended, Cash has been re-upped, and the rest of the impending Yankee free agents have been free agented, we can focus squarely on the main offseason goal of strengthening the 2012 rotation. And while C.J. Wilson and Yu Darvish will dominate the discussion, a more cost effective solution could turn out to be the trade market. Inspired by recent posts discussing who is and isn't trade bait and realistic offseason expectations, and the possibility of adding a #2 starter via a trade, I wanted to look at one of the Yankees' deepest positions in terms of potential trade chips- catcher- and see who might make the most sense to offer up.
Jesus Montero- .288/.348/.467, .365 wOBA in 463 PA at Triple-A (2011)
Jesus is obviously at the head of this class after another productive year in Triple-A and a big time Major League debut in September where he went HAM to the tune of a .328/.406/.590 line with 8 XBH in just 69 PA, good for a .421 wOBA. He's currently the front runner to be the starting DH for the Yankees next year and most likely the backup catcher, but Montero can still be valuable as a trade chip as any team would be happy to add him to their lineup for the next 10 years. The catch with Montero is that the Yankees should really only be willing to discuss him for the right guy (see: Hernandez, Felix).
Austin Romine- .286/.351/.378, .332 wOBA in 373 PA at Double-A
Romine had another solid if unspectacular year in 2011, mostly in Trenton before making a brief stop at SWB after the Jesus call up. He improved his ability to make contact this year at the expense of a bit of power output, and increased his BB rate (8.6%) while decreasing his K rate (16.1%). He'll begin 2012 as the likely starting catcher at Triple-A, and still most likely tops out as a high-level backup or low-level starter at the Major League level, but there are more good things that Romine brings to the table than bad, and there's value to be had in that.
J.R. Murphy- .293/.343/.457, .359 wOBA in 277 PA at Low-A Charleston
2011 was looking like a big coming out party for Murphy before he injured himself for the season with a freak foul ball off the leg. He was hitting the snot out of the ball at Charleston and starting to figure things out at High-A Tampa before the injury. Murphy was also drawing rave reviews from scouts for his much improved defense behind the plate and higher CS rates. Murphy's success in his shortened season put him on a lot of people's radars and could make him a much more attractive trade chip.
Gary Sanchez- .256/.335/.485, .364 wOBA in 343 PA at Low-A Charleston
Sanchez has basically been "Mini Jesus" since the Yankees signed him, and he started mashing almost immediately in rookie ball last year. The sky still appears to be the limit for this kid, as he's only 19 years old, but there are just as many question marks surrounding Sanchez as there were Jesus, if not more. He's not smooth or disciplined behind the plate and often battles inconsistency. And there was the little issue from earlier this season when he was sent down because of attitude problems. But he can hit the lights out and could be a very valuable piece because of the Montero hitting comparisons.
Kyle Higashioka- .238/.300/.372, .308 wOBA in 180 PA at High-A Tampa
Don't laugh. Higgy has some value. He's only 21, has very solid defensive skills, and actually hit the ball better at High-A after getting the call up to replace Murphy than he was hitting at Low-A. His offensive output is still nothing to write home about, but he's got a good eye at the plate and could develop into a serviceable backup with a few more years of seasoning in the Minors. He wouldn't be the center piece of any deal, certainly not one to bring back a #2 starter, but Higashioka shouldn't be written off completely.
Isaias Tejada- .331/.404/.568, .443 OBA in 166 PA at Rookie GCL
I'll be honest, I didn't even know Tejada existed before this season, but he put up some serious numbers this year in the GCL, and just missed being on Baseball America's Top 20 GCL players last month. He just turned 20 on October 28 and possesses a solid skill foundation both at and behind the plate. He did have 12 errors this past season, but the scouting reviews I've read on him don't poke nearly the holes in his defensive game as they do Sanchez's. He'll be a guy to keep an eye on next year at Charleston, and could become more prevalent as a potential trade chip if he keeps producing at the next level.
Obviously there's a lot of talent and lot of potential amongst the Yankees MiL crop of backstops, but there just isn't that much room for all of these guys. They're going to keep advancing through the MiL system and eventually run into a road block at the higher levels, especially if the Yankees keep Russell Martin for the next few seasons. If it were up to me to decide who stays and who goes, I would be looking at putting Romine and Sanchez up for auction. Romine is good at everything but not really great at anything and so there's no sense in not making him available if another team is seriously interested in him, especially with Murphy possibly projecting as a better version of Romine in a few years. And Sanchez to me is a much bigger wild card than Jesus ever was because of the defensive and attitude/focus questions, but he's so highly regarded as a hitting prospect that teams aren't going to turn him down. If he turns out to be a questionable defensive catcher down the road, it's highly unlikely he would supplant Jesus from the lineup with just his bat, regardless of what position Jesus is playing. Long term, he's likely more valuable to the Yankees as a trade piece than as another defensively-challenged catcher.
Now I would make any and every one of these guys available for the right deal. But for all the potential deals that come up this offseason, Romine and Sanchez would be my first choices if the conversation turns towards catchers. They're a perfect combination of high upside and low downside, and their absence would still leave the Yankees with a solid stockpile of young catchers for the future while helping to accomplish the goal of improving the rotation now.