The history of the Yankees can effectively be traced through their catching lineage. This lineage provided a distinct advantage over opponents at the most important defensive position on the field save for the pitcher. The quintet of Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada formed this string of greatness. However, after Posada retired and the Yankees were outbid by the Pirates for Russell Martin‘s services, the predictably diminished production at catcher was on full display last year.
Chirs Stewart, Francisco Cervelli, Austin Romine, and J.R. Murphy combined for a .213/.287/.298 line with plus defense and positional value that added up to about 1 WAR. Stewart got most of those plate appearances, 340, after Cervelli received his 50 game suspension and put up a 58 wRC+, 42% worse than league average. Pitch framing is absent from the fWAR model at present and various models rate Stewart as above average, but it’s very hard to imagine him accruing enough value via that avenue to make him even a 2 win player.
Despite Joe Girardi‘s affinity for journeyman backup catchers like himself, Stewart is a prime non-tender candidate. And with the aversion towards distractions like Cervelli’s Biogenesis suspension, it’s not hard to envision him being non-tendered as well despite a respectable career .343 OBP and average fielding.
Matt Swartz’s very accurate arbitration projections pegs both Stewart and Cervelli to make $1 million for 2014 in their first runs through the process. Furthermore, J.R. Murphy only played half the season in AAA last year so a full 2014 season there seems likely and top catching prospect, Gary Sanchez, is at least a full year away as he hasn’t played a single game for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre yet.
The combination of non-tenders for Stewart and Cervelli, a minor league assignment for Murphy, and an unprepared Sanchez leaves 2 roster spots on the Yankees for catcher. Austin Romine should really be on the 25 man roster and get the backup catching duties. He’s already almost 25 years old so it would be beneficial to see what they have in him either as a contributor to the team or as a trade chip. The other spot is wide open for a free agent acquisition.
The most intriguing name among free agent catchers is Brian McCann. The 29 year old (former) Brave has an outstanding .277/.350/.451 career slash line. Defensive Runs Saved has rated him as below average the last several years and he adds no value on the bases. However, his great offense is extremely valuable at a premium defensive position. Plus, his home run output should get a boost as a lefty fly ball hitter (42.5% career fly ball) in Yankee stadium.
A projected contract would look something like 4 or 5 years at $13-15 million a year. That is a manageable salary even with the $189 luxury tax threshold in mind. The years is what is scary for a player who will be on the wrong side of 30 and has exclusively played catcher. McCann could learn first base and play there in 2017 and/or ’18 when Mark Teixeira‘s contract is up. He could also DH at times depending on the Alex Rodriguez resolution and Derek Jeter‘s future status.
A platoon of McCann and Romine may be in order for next year. Girardi could give McCann days off against tough lefties and play the right handed hitting Romine. After failing to pony up $17 million over 2 years for Russell Martin and enduring a year of Stewart/Cervelli, the Yankees will look to upgrade at catcher through free agency.