Looking Ahead: The 2013 Yankee Catching Predicament
The Yankees are going to need a catcher. Russell Martin will be a free agent after this season and right now the Yankees don’t have an alternative, or even a real plan to think of. Brian Cashman has gone on about how Martin is just like Thurman Munson, except for the fact that he’s not. He’s offered him an overpriced contract extension that was turned down. When he leaves, though, is he actually worth bringing back?
While Martin’s final stats in both 2011 and 2012 look decent enough, if you look closer you’ll see a very inconsistant, questionably defensive minded catcher. In 2011, he finished with a 100 wRC+, basically league average. However, between May, June, July and September of that year he only averaged a 69 wRC+, which is awful. He averaged a 155 wRC+ between April and August, which is ridiculous, and the only reason he ended up looking remotely average. In 2012, Martin finished with a just below average 96 wRC+. Throughout the entire season, he averaged an 85 wRC+, but his 139 final month, bumped his offense up just enough to be looked at as average. If the Yankees need to give a long term contract to a catcher, it should be someone who is offensively consistant.
Russell Martin was originally brought to the Yankees because of his defensive skills. While he has been decent, he hasn’t been exactly great either. It’s hard to gauge the defensive skills of a catcher, but Defensive Runs Saved tracks their abilities on a scale that makes 0 average, 5 to be excellent, and -5 to be awful. In 2011, he scored a 7, but in 2012, he scored a -6. Another inconsistency. The only thing he seems to be consistently good at is Pitch Framing. Yankee catchers ranked fourth in strikes saved per 1,000 pitches, but how much is that really worth, especially when you get offensive inconsistencies in return. Is pitch framing worth sacrificing offense?
The Yankees have two choices when filling in their catching needs. They can either look inside the organization for cheap, untested alternatives, or outside the organization for expensive, ‘known’ commodities. The Yankees are operating on a budget going forward, in order to get under the luxury tax penalties, so their financial freedom is limited. They need to find a happy medium between the two if they want to successfully replace Russell Martin’s contributions to the team.
Their internal options are limited. Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine. That’s all they have. Francisco Cervelli would be a decent backup catcher, but he could never be a full time starter. Austin Romine missed the entire 2012 season due to injury and has yet to play a full year in Triple A. Not even current backup Chris Stewart could fill in as a regular. Cervelli has a strong platoon split against lefties, while Stewart put up a DRS of 4 this year (a far cry from his impossible 12 from 2011) , so they could be useful as backup catchers, but that still doesn’t fill the need for a full time catcher.
The Yankees will have to sign a catcher. Their options will include big free agent target Mike Napoli, but also cheaper alternatives like Ryan Doumit, A.J. Pierzynski, Kelly Shoppach, and Kurt Suzuki. Each one comes with their own benefits and drawbacks and it will be Cashman’s job to weigh their pros and cons.
As awesome as Mike Napoli would be, he’d also cost a lot of money. DRS shows that he’s been pretty bad on defense, with a career -25, but his offense could more than make up for it. His career 127 wRC+ blows Martin out of the water. Napoli can also play first base, which could be useful if Nick Swisher doesn’t return to the Yankees. Since 2010, Napoli has been in the top ten of catchers by WAR, and has the second highest wRC+ (134) among them. He also has the highest home run total, at 80, which is the highest by 15. He can hit to all fields and against all pitchers. He could be the perfect candidate, if not for the contract he’ll be commanding. At 31, he’ll be looking for a long term deal in the neighborhood of 6 years and $75M+ and that’s something the Yankees can’t afford if they want to retain some combination of Swisher/Granderson/Cano.
Ryan Doumit is someone who could be had for much cheaper. While he wouldn’t be able to match Napoli’s offensive might, his platoon splits show that he kills right handed pitching to the tune of a 120 wRC+. He can also play right field and some first base, which gives him a lot of versatility. Doumit could be used as a platoon catcher, which means the Yankees would have to find someone who could hit lefties to match Doumit’s righty mashing ways.
All that remains from there are several fill in stopgaps that could be plugged in for cheap and then disposed of if someone better comes along. A.J. Pierzynski is old, but affordable. He won’t be able to get much as a catcher nearing 40, who can’t hit lefties. 2012 was a reneissance for A.J., who put up his best offensive year in his 14 year career, so he’ll probably be able to get a decent one year contract. He would also have to be platooned, so siging Pierzynski and Doumit wouldn’t make much sense.
Kelly Shoppach has killed lefties throughout his career, posting a 133 wRC+ against them, while looking lost against right handers. He’s also put up two good defensive years in a row. Kurt Suzuki can’t hit, but he is a great fielder, and that can be useful. While he’s below average against lefties and righties, he does hit right handers better, so he should be considered a platoon catcher. Having a good defensive catcher is something every team should strive for, so if the Yankees choose to use a platoon, Shoppach or Suzuki could be a necessity, even if it won’t look very pretty.
In the end, the best course might be to resign Russell Martin to a deal the team will not regret. A one or two year deal would not be terrible, however, since his career splits point him towards being a lefty crusher and useless against righties, a right handed platoon catcher might be of some use. Mike Napoli might be the sexiest move to make, but it won’t make the most economical sense in the world. The Yankees might be better off signing someone like Ryan Doumit, who could not only spell Martin as catcher, but also take up the bulk of at bats against right handers and even spend time in the outfield if need be. You might sacrifice some defense, but a platoon of Martin/Doumit has to be better than a team of Martin/Stewart. Right?
By: Jason Cohen