(Do it, Murph. Courtesy of the AP)
There was a time not too long ago when the Yankees looked like they were going to be set at catcher for a long time to come. They had Russell Martin as the immediate replacement for Jorge Posada, top prospects Jesus Montero and Austin Romine waiting in the wings at the upper levels of their farm system, and an 18-year-old kid named Gary Sanchez raking down in A-ball.
Fast forward to the present day and the catcher position is basically a wasteland. Lifelong backup Francisco Cervelli is on the DL with a broken hand, which cruelly befell him just as he finally seemed to be nailing down the starting job. His backup Chris Stewart is who we thought he was and who he's always been as an all field/no hit player whose defensive reputation always seems to outweigh what he actually does on the field. And Romine, now forced into the backup role for Stewart, has looked awful in his real Major League debut, posting a .151 wOBA and -17 wRC+ and striking out 17 times in 61 PA.
Oh, and the once great savior Jesus has been traded to Seattle and demoted back to Triple-A after registering as a negative WAR player in almost a full season's worth of games. Yep, things have taken quite the bad turn in the world of Yankee catchers. And yet somehow the future still looks just as bright for them at the position as it did 2 years ago.
That brightness can be attributed to the team's continued ability to find and develop quality catching prospects. Romine may have his offensive ceiling collapsing on him faster than most people thought it would, but the rest of the team's top catching prospects are having tremendous years. J.R. Murphy, recently bumped up to replace Romine after posting a .353 wOBA in his return to Double-A, has hit .343/.425/.571 in his first 10 games at Triple-A. Sanchez is putting up similarly impressive offensive numbers in his return year at High-A Tampa and currently stands 2nd in the system in HR this season (11) behind Peter O'Brien, last year's 2nd round pick who was recently promoted to Tampa after hitting .330/.398/.624 for Low-A Charleston. O'Brien's domination of that level as a college hitter and his move up to Tampa signals a promotion to Trenton for Sanchez in the near future, a move that would give the Yanks 3 quality catching prospects at the top 3 levels of their system.
And well below these guys, stashed away on the 2nd GCL team, could be the next great international catching prospect on the Yankee assembly line in Luis Torrens. Torrens is just 17 years old and a recent convert to the catching position after playing as an infielder in Venezuela. He was ranked as the 2nd best international prospect by Baseball America last year and the Yankees clearly liked what they saw in him based on the $1.2 million they used out of their limited international spending pool to sign him. Torrens is still very raw defensively, but he's been playing a lot of innings behind the plate early in the GCL season and he's lived up to the sparkling scouting reports on his approach at the plate by going 5-10 with 3 XBH and 2 BB in his first 3 games. He doesn't have the power of a Montero or a Sanchez, but the hit tool is definitely there and he's got plenty of time to develop.
Add to this laundry list of gaudy offensive numbers the fact that both Murphy and Sanchez continue to get positive reports on their defensive progress and things look even brighter for the Yankees' catching future. While they won't ever be Pudge Rodriguez back there, the expectation is that both can stick long term behind the plate, something that was never said about Montero. O'Brien is a bit of a butcher defensively from what I've read, and his ceiling is significantly lower than that of Murphy or Sanchez, but if he can continue to slug as he moves up the ladder there will be a job for him somewhere at the Major League level.
Things haven't worked out well for Montero and Romine since they made their Major League debuts and it would be understandable to have that cause some trepidation when evaluating Murphy, Sanchez, or any of the team's current crop of young catchers. It's also understandable to be looking at Murphy and Sanchez as viable options for a spot on the Major League roster as soon as next season based on what they're doing this year. The Yankees punted on the catcher position in 2013 and they're paying the price for it. They still have a bevy of talent at the position across all levels of their farm system and it may not be very long before they have another chance to find their new future catcher.