Each year baseball fans everywhere mark a random day in mid-February down on their calenders as one of the best days of the year: the day pitchers and catchers report, aka, the unofficial start of the Major League season. For many players, particularly veterans and All-Stars, Spring Training offers a chance to reconnect with old teammates while meeting new ones and to work the body into shape for the long grind of 162 games. But for many other players, rookies, guys on the fringe, or the 40-year-old looking for one last shot at glory, the start of spring represents the start of the season. These players are fighting for their big league lives, the last spot on the roster, or maybe even a starting position.
One of the most important positions on any baseball team, whether it be Little League, legion ball, or the bigs, is catcher. He’s the backbone of so much of what any baseball team does. There are so many responsibilities behind the plate that it can be difficult for any player to keep track of what to do. A catcher has to manage a pitching staff, call the game, receive pitches, frame pitches, block balls in the dirt, contain the opponent’s running game, and we haven’t even gotten to hitting.
Any team with championship aspirations will make it a point to have as strong a backstop as possible, simply because the position is of the utmost importance. It’s why you see the Washington Nationals swapping for a catcher in August, even though they had the best record in baseball at the time and it’s why Russell Martin received a $16.5 million dollar deal despite his .224 batting average over the last 2 seasons. Thanks to a weak free agent market at the position, the Yankees have instead opted to play the hand they were dealt. Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and rookie Austin Romine will all be given a chance to win the starting job behind the plate, and all the responsibility that goes with it. But which of the three catchers is expected to win the job? And what kind of production can the Yankees expect?
The Yankees former backup from 2009 through 2011 had a bit of a setback in 2012. A year ago the plan was for Cervelli to break camp as the Yankees’ backup catcher, but as we know, things don’t always go according to plan. The acquisition of Chris Stewart and injuries at the Triple-A level left Cervelli as the odd man out on the Yankees’ roster.
He was optioned to the Triple-A Scranton, where he appeared disinterested on his way to a pedestrian .246/.341/.316 line. “In the beginning it was hard,” Cervelli said. “It was easy to complain. But now, I think it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I got to play every day, but I also learned to appreciate the game in a different way. To not have a house and traveling a lot was really hard, but I think it was a test that I passed, and I think it is going to make me better.” That’s what the Yankees are hoping as well.
As far as his exploits in the Majors go, Cervelli has been a .271/.339/.353 hitter with 5 homers in over 500 career at-bats. That .271 batting average is solid, but it falls apart on further inspection, because all Cervelli has is a wallet full of singles. Even if he can maintain that batting average, he’s almost guaranteed to be downgrade compared to Martin, a player with a low average but a lot of pop.
On defense, he should rank somewhere around the middle in the league’s hierarchy. Although his arm is only average, Cervelli has excellent pitch blocking skills which can help a team in a couple of ways. To state the obvious, it prevents runners from advancing. But it also has the added effect of giving a pitcher more confidence to uncork a nasty breaking ball. If CC Sabathia is confident that his catcher will block the ball no matter where it’s pitched, he’s more likely to attempt a filthier pitch, and more likely to get the out because of it.
There is also the issue of Cervelli’s involvement in the ongoing steroid ring in Miami. It’s highly unlikely that Major League Baseball will be able to suspend any of the players involved in the investigation unless they fail a test during the season. The Players Association would have a field day if any player was suspended for any reason outside of a failed test, so don’t expect Cervelli to go anywhere for those reasons.
Romine was a 2nd round draft pick by the Yankees in 2007 and now that he’s 24, he finally appears ready to break into the bigs. He made a brief 9 game cameo for the Yankees a year ago after struggling with a bad back for most of the season. He lost 13 pounds over the winter in an effort to make the big club, and his enthusiasm evident. Romine was gracious enough to do an interview for MLB.com before starting camp and he had this to say:
“Definitely, I don’t want to go to Triple-A,” Romine said. “I want to be on this team, I’m here to show them that I can do it and I’m going to earn it.Every year, I’m coming in and I’m trying to be on the team. That’s what I’m trying to do. I want to be on this team, helping them win a World Series. “I’m not changing my mindset; I’m going to work hard, show them that I can do it, and wherever they see fit to put me, that’s where I’m going to go.
For most of his minor league career Romine has been considered a defense-first catcher who would hopefully hit well enough to make it to the big leagues. The Yankees feel that he can be one of the better defensive catchers in baseball and they think that his arm strength is the best asset to make that happen. If the reports hold true (and early evidence says they will), than the only issue Romine has is his bat.
Romine has been a .278 hitter throughout his minor league career, and he’s shown the ability to hit the ball gap-to-gap with some proficiency. He doesn’t draw walks, he doesn’t hit for power, and he doesn’t have much speed, so basically what you see in the average is what you get in the batters box from the 24-year-old.
Stewart has long had a reputation as one of the finest defensive catchers in the league, hailing from his days as a backup in San Francisco. He came to the Yankees a year ago just a few days before the start of the regular season and acquitted himself nicely with the team’s rotation. He was actually the favored catcher of CC Sabathia a year ago and it wouldn’t surprise me to see Stewart reprise that role in 2013, regardless of whether or not he wins the starting job. Now if he could only hit.
Stewart, a .217 career hitter, is a banjo picker on at the plate and a near automatic out every time in the lineup. He’s averaged a homer once every 100 or so at-bats in his career, which is part of the reason he can’t draw a walk to save his life. Even mediocre pitchers just aren’t afraid of slow players who can’t hit for power whatsoever. Aces look at those hitters like a lion might look a calf. That’s an easy meal. Joe Girardi would be smart to use Stewart in a role similar to the one he held a year ago, where he played sparingly, usually when CC was on the mound, in order to give Russell Martin a day off.
My personal hope is that Austin Romine is acclimate himself well enough with the pitching staff to win the starting position. He’s got the most potential and he he has a good reputation as a pitch-handler coming out of the minor leagues. This is one of the most experienced pitching staffs in the American League so he won’t have too much to do on the mental side of things. Romine could also develop into a solid .250-.260 hitter with some gap power, which would be a nice compliment to his defense. But he’s had problems staying healthy in his career already and he’s the least experienced of the trio, so if he doesn’t hit in the Spring he’s guaranteed to start the year in Triple-A.
If that’s the case, I have a feeling Cervelli and Stewart will split time about evenly. Stewart will catch the more veteran hurlers, Sabathia, Kuroda, and Pettitte, while Cervelli takes the young guys. The older pitchers seemed to prefer working with Stewart a year ago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case again when compared to the high-strung Cervelli.