Hand the mask and catcher's mitt to Austin Romine in 2013 and the Yankees may be pleasantly surprised. (Image: Michael L. Stein-US PRESSWIRE)

Losing Russell Martin does not spell doom for Yankees

The New York Yankees made a grand statement Thursday by not uttering a word or making a roster move. They did something that they haven’t done much of in the last 40 years (George Steinbrenner’s purchase of the team was Jan. 3, 1973) — they let a piece of the puzzle that would fit and possibly help the team go away — without even making an offer.

Russell Martin was once a desired piece of the future puzzle for the Yankees going back to last offseason when he was offered a three-year, $20 million contract. He declined that offer and eventually signed a one-year deal worth $7.5 million for 2012. His new contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, two-years at $17 million, nets him $4 million more in salary. That is a significant increase after a pretty pathetic overall display at the plate this season. Good for Martin, and good luck to the Pirates with him. In my opinion the loss of Martin is not going to spell doom for the Yankees.

Russell Martin takes his fire and decreasing batting average to Pittsburgh. I say no big loss. (Image: Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIRE)

Indeed the catcher’s market is thin and the Pirates have saved enough money over the years and feel that Martin can lead a pitching staff to a record above .500 for the first time in over 20 seasons. He may well do that, but the Yankees evidently feel that they can win the American League East, or minimally a wild card spot, with just about anyone in the role.

Why do I say just about anyone? Well, some things have immediately been established by the Yankees decision to sit pat for now. One, they are not willing to spend more than $6-7 million per year over the next two seasons at the catcher’s position. As of now, general manager Brian Cashman believes that the answer could actually be on the 40-man roster already.

“It’s possible that our catchers are right here on this roster, right now,” Cashman said. “That is very well possible and more likely than not, to be honest. We’ll see. Patience is a virtue, and good things come to those who wait.”

At this point, you’d have to take him for his word.

The Yankees word has been very clear since last season when they announced their intentions of dropping payroll in order to get below the $189 million competitive balance tax threshold (man am I tired of writing that already). In letting Martin go without a battle, the Yankees have firmly stated without use of words that there are other pressing matters for them to attend to which play a larger role in the success of the team, than who sits behind the plate for most of the 2013 season.

Our staffer Jimmy Kraft laid out various options the Yankees have in front of them. I can’t see the Yankees signing Mike Napoli or A.J. Pierzynski and early indications are that they are not on the Yankees’ radar. The Yankees will not trade for an upper tier catcher, even if one was available for basically the same reasons they stayed clear of Martin and seem uninterested in Napoli and Pierzynski — money.

The Yankees can try to find a trade partner, but the best options available and also inexpensive reside in the American League East; Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Toronto’s J.P. Arencibia. They are attractive because they have big league experience, but the notion of AL East teams swapping players is a very big long shot. As an aside, I get the reasoning why divisional opponents don’t often become trade partners, but at the same time if there is a mutual benefit for both teams I don’t understand the fear of trading within the division. That is especially true in the case of uncertain major leaguers like Saltalamacchia and Arencibia. The likelihood of them coming back to haunt their former teams is not great, but the stigma remains.

One thing it seems that many are not suspecting the Yankees will do, even with Cashman’s utterance above, is hand over the tools of ignorance to Austin Romine. Romine would have certainly benefited from a full season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but unfortunately he dealt with a nagging injury which cost him a better part of the season. If you’ll recall, Romine was called up in 2011 for some time behind the plate in addition to Jesus Montero, the then premier catching prospect in the Yankees’ system, who has since been traded and seems headed for a DH assignment in 2013.

I and many others believe Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside are nothing more than backup catchers. Cervelli may be given a shot if the Yankees choose to open up a competition between inexpensive in-house options, but Romine is the only option now who projects to be a starting catcher in the Majors. Why not let it happen now?

Romine’s defense is ready for the show, though he could stand to throw out more potential base stealers, as his 24 percent rate combined in the minors indicates. Coincidentally, that is the exact percentage of base runners Martin threw out in 2012. Romine’s bat may be a little behind because of the lost time. Romine has hit .278 in 1925 minor league plate appearances with a .333 OBP and .414 SLG. Certainly, nothing spectacular, but the Yankees preach defense and calling a game over everything else when it comes to catching which is evident in how they stuck with Martin all of 2012.

It is true that Romine does not profile to hit for power so the Yankees will lose out on that compared with Martin. But, we’re also talking at a cost differential of about $8 million per year. If Romine can prove to be superior or even at least as successful behind the plate as Martin, can the Yankees sacrifice 10-plus home runs? I’m guessing they would figure it out.

Staying in-house for a catcher will give the Yankees more money to fill the other parts of their rosters I mentioned Thursday, which Cashman obviously feels are more important to the success of the team. They may be able to spend more on their replacement for Nick Swisher in right field, the bench or even seek to upgrade the bullpen. They would likely find a veteran presence for a backup who could help Romine grow in the role as well. They’ll also be ready for the 2014 payroll decrease assuming Romine isn’t a complete bust. Whatever way you look at it, Cashman gains some wiggle room if he has a starting catcher earning $500K instead of $8.5 million. It would allow the Yankees to take on salary at the 2013 trade deadline should they need to.

Plus, once Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and possibly Curtis Granderson are removed from the roster for 2014, the Yankees shed $52 million guaranteed salary (it could be more with Pettitte’s and Rivera’s incentives) plus the $8.5 million saved by not signing Martin into next season. Believe it or not, once that is done and even after the Yankees will presumably invest serious cash into a long-term agreement with Robinson Cano, they’ll still have money to spend in free agency or via trade.

So, in the end maybe Russell Martin did the Yankees three favors — (1) he passed on last year’s offer, (2) he was awful at the plate for almost five full months and (3) he wanted MORE than he earned in 2012 for paltry work. It allowed the Yankees to look deeper at the salary they want to set aside for catcher through 2014 until their catching prize, Gary Sanchez, is potentially ready to take the reigns in 2015. I didn’t lose any sleep over Martin’s departure and neither will the Yankees.

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