KOBEsh: This week’s question is relatively simple; with the offseason departure of Russell Martin (yet another casualty of the Steinbrenner’s crusade to get under the luxury tax threshold), who’s going to be the Yanks’ starting catcher? And how early will the team really miss Martin’s power, play calling and leadership?
Vin: To tackle the first part of this question, I would say there is a 50% chance Chris Stewart starts the year as the main catcher, a 40% chance Cervelli does, a 5% chance Austin Romine does and a 5% chance someone else does. While the Yankees letting Russell Martin skip town was all about money, the move does reveal something about their baseball thinking: they are willing to entertain the possibility of starting an all defense, zero offense catcher and concentrating resources elsewhere.
Well… Chris Stewart is the definition of an all defense, zero offense catcher. And so when predicting who they’ll choose as the starter, it makes sense to give the edge to the guy who most resembles the model they’ve chosen to embrace. Not to be overlooked, however, is Francisco Cervelli, who also lacks basic offensive skills and is not a slouch behind the plate either. His offensive “ceiling,” a word I use only because I am unaware of a term for a structure that limits upward mobility but lacks any connotation for being vertically high itself, is slightly better than Stewart’s and his defense slightly worse.
When saying these things, I rely both on widely available statistics but also on the gut judgment any fan who watches a ton of his or her team develops. When Cervelli gets a big hit or hits a home run, you are definitely surprised in a “haha, that’s awesome” kind of way. When Stewart performs the very same feat, you are surprised in a “holy shit!” kind of way. Besides fitting the Yankees’ Russell Martin-less prototype perfectly, I also give Stewart the edge because he was on the team all of last year while Cervelli was buried in the minors until September. It should be noted that the Yankees said the former only won the backup catching job out of spring because he lacked any options and therefore could not be sent to the minors lest the organization lose him. They claimed that in the even that Martin suffered a serious injury, Cervelli would be called up to be the long term replacement and Stewart would remain in the backup role. Still, the fact remains that Stewart was on the team all year and Cervelli wasn’t has to count for something.
Romine is simply too inexperienced. Would I love him to force the team’s hand by having an awesome spring, living up to his reputation as an excellent defender beyond his years and experience and showing some flashes of life with the bat that put him ahead of the other 2? Of course. But the guy played in 31 games last season and cannot be counted on to handle a veteran pitching staff unless he gives the team no choice. The bigger question for Romine is whether or not a combination of Stewart/Cervelli offensive impotence and solid production in AAA earn him a call up later in the season. There are zero rumors of the Yankees making a move for another catcher, but obviously that can never be counted out completely. Be sure of this: whoever wins the job will have a tenuous hold on it. There’s such little difference between Stewart and Cervelli as players that there is little incentive for Girardi to not base their playing time on who has the hot hand, both offensively and in handling certain pitchers. Also, the manager will be more apt to pinch hit for them late in games than he would have been with Martin (even if it means having no back-up on the bench), and so the understudy receiver should see more time late in games. I wouldn’t be surprised if the “starter” ended up playing 100 or so games and the “back up” 60 or so.
As for when the Yankees will start to miss Russell Martin, the answer is early and often. Martin may have struggled offensively last year outside of his 21 home runs and never was able to achieve the offensive contributions that he gave the Yankees in his first few months with the team in 2011, but he was at the very least a professional hitter and Stewart and Cervelli simply are not. When the catcher’s turn in the order comes, the Yankees and their fans will have zero to little confidence in what can be done, whether it be starting a rally, getting a big hit, or putting one in the seats. That was not true the past two years with Martin.
Everyone knows the deal by now: the Yankees want to take advantage of a unique opportunity to save a ton of money by getting under $189 million in 2014 and so they were very reluctant to offer multiyear deals this past offseason besides a head scratcher given to Ichiro. But I disagreed with letting Martin walk; if there was an exception to be made to the plan, it should have been him. By all accounts the guy was well regarded by the baseball operations staff and the team wanted him back in a perfect world. They even tried to negotiate an extension with him before the 2012 season and the end of his contract, something the Yankees have a policy against doing.
I’m not surprised to hear that Martin is one of MAMBINO’s favorite players–the guy is definitely a baller. His demeanor on the field had all the “hell yeah! fire me up!” intensity of Cervelli’s nonstop fist pumping with none of the resulting exasperation, both because he’s a far better player and saves his real public displays of emotion for the big moments. My personal favorite in this situation: his huge double in Fenway on September 1, 2011 in a great win that moved the Yankees to within 1/2 game of Boston, well before the unprecedented Sox collapse. This wasn’t his biggest hit as a Yankee, but for me defined how awesome he was to watch. Check it here, because MLB Advanced Media hates blogger.
His postgame interviews always showed him to be a reasonably intelligent, well spoken, rational guy (in my opinion, you can’t begin to judge a player’s personality if you haven’t seen at least a dozen or so postgame interviews with him, after moments good and bad. Even then you are still only playing amateur/pop psychologist like the morons who go on CNN after mass shootings and diagnose someone they admit they’ve never met in person).You could tell he loved being a Yankee, even embracing the rivalry by talking of his hatred for the Sox and stressing in Pirates camp recently that learning the way the Yankees go about their business has changed his career for the better. In short, you always want your team to get the big hit, but there are guys who make you feel a little extra “fuck yeah” when they do it. Martin was one of those guys and even though he was only on the Yankees for 2 seasons I will definitely remember him fondly.