(Is the kid already being groomed? Courtesy of Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News)
There's no denying that the Yankees downgraded at more than one position this offseason, perhaps nowhere more than at catcher. Low 2012 batting average aside, Russell Martin was a good 2-way backstop in his two years in New York. He brought power and patience (the top two Yankee offensive staples) to the plate, some decent speed and smarts on the basepaths, and a strong all-around defensive game behind the plate. The Yankees' decision to not even offer him a contract this offseason was beyond puzzling, both because of the money involved in the deal he eventually did sign and because of what they had left available to pick from for a replacement. There's no other way to say it than to just say that the Yankees have two substandard candidates for the everyday job this year, guys who are much better suited as backups than starters. That's the decision the front office made and a decision they've stood by all offseason, for better or worse. Now that camp has started, we'll find out who's the next in line to be the bridge to Gary Sanchez.
The Favorite- Chris Stewart
TCS gets the nod as the favorite heading into camp mainly because he was the player the Yankee brass decided was a better backup option than Frankie last season. Stewart caught 55 games for the Yanks in 2012, and at least in the eyes of the decision makers lived up to his reputation as a strong defensive catcher. He rated positively on most defensive measurement scales and threw out a respectable 22.86% of potential base stealers (8 of 35). To his credit, Stewart actually outperformed his career averages offensively last season. But when that outperforming line is just .241/.292/.319 (.272 wOBA), that's not nearly enough to make people forget about Martin.
Stewart can put the bat on the ball and take a walk every now and then, and at worst he doesn't take anything off the table defensively. His status as last year's backup has to make him the early leader in the competition to become this year's starter.
The Underdog- Francisco Cervelli
The backup before Stewart, Cervelli was surprisingly booted down to Triple-A last season right before the start and seemingly never really recovered from the shock. He posted a positively Stewart-ish .309 wOBA in over 400 Triple-A PA before getting some late season Major League bitch work when the rosters expanded. Cervelli is a slightly more valuable offensive player than Stewart because of his strong BB rate (8.0%) and a little more pop to his bat, but his career line is still just .271/.339/.353, low enough to get him pegged with the "defense first" tag. The problem with that tag for Frankie is that he's not much of a defensive catcher either, rating below average in each of his last 3 seasons at the Major League level.
Like Stewart, he can handle the bat to a certain degree and gives himself a better chance at winning the job by opting to skip the WBC, but he'll need a real strong defensive showing to overtake TCS.
The Sleeper- Austin Romine
The best all-around catcher in the bunch might be Romine, and were it not for the back injuries that robbed him of so many Triple-A reps last year we might not even be having this discussion. Romine has said his back feels better than ever and that he doesn't even think about it anymore, which is a great sign, but all the talk from the coaching staff and Cash points to him starting in SWB again to make up for those lost reps. His production slowed a bit upon reaching the upper levels of the Minors, but Romine still has a much higher offensive ceiling than Stewart or Cervelli, even if that ceiling is just as a .260-.270/10-12 HR type. Romine's biggest asset is his defense, which is what the Yankees like most about him and what they seem to value the most at the position these days.
He'll need a lot of help to win the job out of camp, but Romine is going to be a fixture in the "who should be the starting catcher?" discussion all year.
** Coming up tomorrow- 4th Outfielder. **