COMMENTARY | Amidst the backdrop of the New York Yankees' fiscal austerity program is the team's search for a backstop. In November, the void was left when the team's starting catcher for the past two seasons, Russell Martin, signed a two-year contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates for $15 million -- not a bad payday for a guy who hit .211 last year and threw out only 24 percent of base runners.
However, the search for a catcher shouldn't be as difficult as the team's search for a right-handed hitting outfielder, as four catchers are expected to compete to make team's opening-day roster when spring training starts next month -- Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez.
Yankees fans will remember Cervelli, 26, who's been up and down with the club since 2008. Over that span, he's donned four different uniform numbers and caught in 177 games, including a season-high 90 games in 2010. Combined, he's hit .271 (.331 OBP) with five home runs in 184 games. He's also been hampered by injuries, the latest of which occurred last month. While playing in the Venezuelan Winter League, he suffered a whiplash injury on a foul tip (he was catching). Yankees officials have said the injury wasn't too serious -- an MRI came back negative -- but they'll likely have their fingers crossed this spring. In previous offseasons, he's suffered a concussion and a broken foot.
Battling Cervelli will be Stewart, the Yankees' second-string catcher last year. For him, spring training competitions are nothing new. He's been with five major league clubs over six seasons, including two with the Yankees (he played one game for the Bombers in 2008). Stewart, who turns 31 next month, is known more for his defense than his hitting (.217 BA, .281 OBP in 148 games). Case in point: Yankees manager Joe Girardi started Stewart 46 times behind the plate last season. He was pulled for a pinch-hitter in 19 (41 percent) of those games.
Also in the catching mix will be Romine and Sanchez, both of whom have been ranked among the Yankees' top 10 prospects by Baseball America for three straight years.
Romine's recent numbers in the Arizona Fall League, where he faced other top prospects, didn't exactly stand out. In 18 games, he hit .222 with a .628 OPS.
Last week, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman told reporters that he believes Romine, 24, will start the season in Triple-A, meaning that Cervelli and Stewart would open the season as the Yankees' catchers. Of Romine, Cashman told the Daily News, "He missed all of last year, almost. I don't expect him to be our everyday catcher out of the gate. He always has the possibility of taking it, but realistically, if I were in prediction mode, I'd say Triple-A. But he has a chance to alter that."
Romine, however, has had a taste of the majors. In 2011, when the Yankees' top catching prospect was Jesus Montero, Romine played in nine games as a September call-up. Last year, as Cashman alluded to, Romine was limited to playing in 31 games across three minor league levels, where he hit a combined .243 (.333 OBP, .741 OPS).
That leaves the oft-forgotten Sanchez, who turned 20 last month. In three minor league seasons, the Dominican native, who's not on the Yankees' 40-man roster, has done nothing but impress scouts. Nevertheless, although most predict that he's still a season or two away from the majors, he keeps collecting All-Star and player-of-the-week awards as he moves up the depth chart. Last year, he hit .290 (.344 OBP, .829 OPS). Last year, the Yankees invited him to spring training, and it's likely that he'll be in camp again this spring.
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.
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