Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Yankee Catching Conundrum

I know this is going to come as a complete shock, but the Yankees really haven't gotten much from the catcher position this season.  After breathing life back into his career last year, Russell Martin has regressed back to his 2009-2010 levels of offensive futility (.187/.333/.333, .309 wOBA, 90 wRC+).  And Chris Stewart, despite my best efforts to hype up his early production, has settled into the exact no-hit/all-field role we all anticipated him filling as CC Sabathia's personal catcher Martin's backup.  This adds up to a combined .196/.314/.313 tripleslash, .290 wOBA, and 77 wRC+ in 192 PA over the team's first 50 games from the catcher spot.  Production-wise, that wOBA ranks 19th in MLB, probably more of a testament to the overall offensive weakness of the position than anything else.  The Martin-Stewart tandem has been good for 0.8 WAR (T-16th in MLB), mainly on the strength of their positive defensive ratings, but with the up-and-down production of the lineup this season, some offensive improvement at the position would be helpful.

Martin's GB rate has come down to 51.6% from the mid-60s territory it was in back in April, but he still isn't hitting a lot of line drives (15.8%). There's nothing in his swing rates to suggest that Martin has taken to hacking wildly this season, and his 14.7% BB rate is right in line with his historically strong pitch recognition and count-working skills, so there must be more than just bad luck to explain his low BABIP and poor hit output. Ideally, the Yankees would give Martin a couple days off to rest and get some work in with Kevin Long to fix whatever it is that's ailing him this season. But to do that would mean multiple consecutive days of Stewart and his limp noodle bat, and that isn't a winning decision given the combined inconsistencies of the lineup and the rotation.  The next best solution would be to call somebody up.

One problem there.  The Yankees don't have any viable in-house options to plug in to try to shake things up.  Jorge Posada has put himself out to pasture, Jesus Montero has been traded away to Seattle, Francisco Cervelli has actually hit worse in Triple-A this season than he did in the Majors last season (.254/.322/.333, .305 wOBA in 153 PA), and Austin Romine is still yet to participate in any sort of meaningful baseball activities this season because of his lingering back injury.  It's worth noting that Cervelli's numbers from last season would actually be an improvement over Martin's current level of production, but one would have to think that if the Yankees were going to call him up they would have done it already.  The only thing that can really be done is what the Yankees are already doing; continuing to roll Russ out there and hoping he finds it.

Perhaps of even greater concern than the immediate problems is what this situation could mean for the Yankees' future backstop plans.  Martin has hardly impressed in his one-year contract audition thus far, and the Yankees would be unlikely to commit to him long term if he hit like this for an entire season.  With the lineup saddled with plenty of age-related decline concerns, the Yankees are going to be looking for production everywhere.  But with Montero gone and Romine missing major time, they no longer have the luxury of a cheap in-house replacement who's ready to step in.  J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez are still years away in A-ball, and nobody else above them has the chops to be a full-time Major Leaguer.

Outside the organization, the pickings are starting to thin out as well.  The premiere free agent replacement option, Miguel Montero, just finished watching the ink dry on his new 5-year/$60 million deal with the Diamondbacks, and the other options aren't all that appealing.  Mike Napoli is all-bat/no-D, and would likely command more money than Martin given his recent track record at the plate, Brian McCann is probably going to have his option picked up by Atlanta, A.J. Pierzynski is old as hell, and Chris Iannetta looks very mediocre in his first experience outside of Coors Field.  If the Yankees decide not to re-up with Martin, their odds of finding something better at a price that works for them are going to be pretty low.

It's hard to believe that just 6 months ago the Yankees were swimming in quality catching depth.  Right now they don't have any depth or depth of talent to help generate some more production from the most stagnant part of their lineup, and the external options for the future aren't looking all that bright.  Yes, production from the catcher spot wouldn't be such a big deal if the rest of the lineup was meeting expectations, and yes, it's good to at least be getting above-average defense from the position.  But seeing Martin get his BA above the Mendoza Line would also go a long way in clearing up the questions surrounding the future of one of the Yankee organization's most storied positions.

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