(Courtesy of USA Today Sports)
Yesterday I broke down what I believe to be the most open and even roster competition in camp this year, the battle for the utility infielder bench role. From that, we move today to the roster battle I believe to be the least open and even and more of a token competition than anything, the competition for backup catcher.
The Yankees' upper-level catching depth has come a long way from where it stood at the end of last season. Gone is THE Chris Stewart, replaced by Brian McCann, and returned is the man who would have made a better starting option than Stewart last year had he stayed healthy. In his absence, a pair of prospects got chances to showcase their talents as Major League backup options and all 3 enter camp this year with a chance to nail down that job again. After the jump, the competitors for the backup catcher spot.
Francisco Cervelli- Brian Cashman ended any speculation about Cervelli's future with the team early this offseason when he said he'd absolutely tender Cervelli a contract. Joe ended any speculation about Cervelli's standing in the catcher pecking order when he told reporters he saw Cervelli as McCann's backup. With his contract signed, his hand and elbow healed, and his job status not up in the air, Cervelli enters this spring more secure in his role than he's ever been. Compared to his younger counterparts, he is the unquestioned best option as the backup. His defense, game calling, framing, and familiarity with the pitching staff are all at the very least on par with those of Romine and Murphy, and he's proven to be a better and more easy to predict offensive commodity. Given all of that and his seniority over the other 2, Cervelli is the comfortable favorite.
Austin Romine- Given his chance to step into regular backup (and almost starter) duty when Cervelli went down last year, Romine's stock took another hit as a result of his weak offensive performance. His durability is also starting to become a question between the back problems and concussions, but last season's small sample size does allow him to maintain some level of projectability going forward. If the uptick in his production before last year's concussion was a sign of things to come and he hits like he was then, Romine could have a higher offensive ceiling than Cervelli. He's always been solid all-around behind the plate, so in the likely event that he doesn't do enough in camp to overtake Cervelli, Romine is still a rock solid #3 option to have in Triple-A.
J.R. Murphy- Or should I say "John Ryan Murphy" since that's apparently what he wants to be called now. Truth be told, Murphy may have a better chance than Romine of stealing the backup job from Cervelli if either of them have any chance at all. Murphy impressed a lot of people with what he did in the Minors and Majors last year, to the point that he's raised his stock as a potential above-average starting catcher. Like Romine, he didn't do much with the bat in his limited batch of MLB plate appearances, but he's developed a nice mix of hitting for above-average average, above-average power, and solid on-base skills. There's nothing wrong with sending Murphy back to SWB for some more seasoning to start the year. He did play in only 59 games there in 2013. Down the road though, he may be the best backup (and everyday) option out of this group.
My Take- It's going to be Frankie. No doubt about it. He's older, he's got more experience, he's a better hitter right now, and he doesn't have any MiL options left. The only way he doesn't win this competition is if he gets hurt again, at which point I'd say the odds are about even between Romine and Murphy. There's always a non-zero chance of that happening when you're playing behind the plate, but I'm cautiously confident that Cervelli will stay healthy this spring and be the second catcher on the Opening Day roster.