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Catch Me If You Can

Posted By Cliff Corcoran On November 28, 2008 @ 11:11 am In Cliff Corcoran,Hot Stove | Comments Disabled

The answer to “what went wrong?” is surprisingly quick and easy: Jorge Posada got hurt, and the team couldn’t compensate for that loss because they were too busy compensating for other problems.

That was the conclusion of my postmortem [1] on the Yankees 2008 season. Note that I’m not blaming Posada’s bum shoulder for the Yankees’ failure to make the postseason for the first time since 1993, but rather the combination of Posada’s injury and the team’s other failures, most significantly Robinson Cano’s collapse. Had Cano been productive, the Yankees very well may have survived the loss of Posada, but the combination of the two simply took too many runs off the board.

Heading into 2009, we’re hearing very encouraging reports about Cano’s off-season training regime in the Dominican Republic and his continued work with hitting coach Kevin Long, but little about Posada. With Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu departing as free agents and the team focusing on improving their pitching rather than replacing those runs on offense, the Yankees will need more than a comeback season from Cano to return to the postseason, they’ll need a full contribution from Posada as well, and if Posada’s shoulder hasn’t recovered enough to allow him to catch his usual slate of 140 or so games, they’ll have to find a much more productive replacement for him than Jose Molina, who is a fine defensive catcher, but a miserable hitter.

Here are the men who started behind the plate for the Yankees in 2008:

Player Starts Stats OPS+ CS%
Jose Molina 81 .216/.263/.314 61 44%
Jorge Posada 28 .293/.377/.434 127 17%
Chad Moeller 25 .238/.323/.333 85 38%
Ivan Rodriguez 26 .219/.257/.323 51* 26%
Chris Stewart 1 0 for 3 n/a 0%
Francisco Cervelli 1 0 for 3 n/a 0%
Total 162 .230/.290/.335 75 33%

OPS+ adjusted for position except for *

Entering the season, Chad Moeller’s career line (.224/.284/.346) was not significantly better than Molina’s (.243/.279/.345), both men were the same age, and Molina had hit well for the Yankees down the stretch in 2007 and had a hot streak for them in April of this year, so it’s really only in hindsight that the choice of Molina over Moeller seems like an obvious mistake given Moeller’s 60-points advantage in on-base percentage. Still, as the season progressed and Molina’s bat failed to restart following his late-April hamstring injury, it became increasingly obvious that the Yankees needed to try someone else behind the dish. The late-July trade for Ivan Rodriguez, who was hitting .295/.338/.417 for the Tigers, seemed like a brilliant solution to that problem. The Yankees didn’t miss Kyle Farnsworth given the strength of their bullpen and the 6.75 ERA he posted with Detroit, but Rodriguez was never given more than three starts in a row, didn’t hit when he did played, and was largely abandoned down the stretch, starting just five of the Yankees’ final 18 games.

Moeller and the now 37-year-old Rodriguez are both free agents this offseason, but looking at the catchers remaining in the Yankees’ system, the organization is surprisingly strong and deep at the position over the long-term, thanks largely to its efforts of the past couple of years:

Player Age* Level 2008 Stats CS%
Jorge Posada 37 MLB .293/.377/.434 17%
Jose Molina 33 MLB .216/.263/.314 44%
Francisco Cervelli 23 AA .315/.432/.384 27%
P.J. Pilittere 27 AA .277/.317/.349 18%
Kyle Anson 26 A+ .241/.367/.353 26%
Austin Romine 20 A .300/.344/.437 17%
Jesus Montero 19 A .326/.376/.491 20%
Kyle Higashioka 19 Rk .261/.300/.348 5%

*on May 1, 2009

Cervelli famously missed most of the 2008 season after suffering a broken arm in a home-plate collision in spring training, so the numbers above were compiled in just 88 plate appearances. Still, those rates are not a far cry from his minor league averages (.282/.384/.388). Cervelli won’t turn 23 until March and, though he lacks much power (he has just five career home runs in 682 PA), he seems to have a good idea at the plate and a good reputation behind it. I would think he’d start the year back in Trenton, but he could be in Triple-A quickly and, having made his major league debut as a September call-up this year (he looked awful, but he was in way over his head given his mere 21 games of experience above A-ball), he could be back in New York by season’s end and possibly Posada’s full-time backup in 2010 (Molina’s contract expires after the 2009 season).

Pilittere is a place-holder, and Anson is way too old to be slugging .353 in A-ball, but Romine and Montero, both of whom were in full-season ball as teenagers last year, could move quickly (Cervelli didn’t make his full-season debut until 2007). Some questions remain about whether or not the 6-foot-4 Montero, who is a blue-chip hitting prospect, will remain behind the plate. I tend to believe that the Yankees won’t move him unless (or until) Romine or Higashioka, the team’s seventh-round pick in this year’s draft, emerges as the team’s Cather of the Future. Romine hit just .208/.306/.321 in the Hawaiian winter league this month, so Montero will remain behind the plate for now. Besides, if there’s an organization that understands the value of getting elite production from the catching position, it’s the Yankees, and it’s worth noting that of Dickey, Berra, Howard, Munson, and Posada, perhaps only Munson was regarded as strong defensive catcher upon his arrival in the majors.

The next Yankee catcher is likely already in the system, but it will be a while before he gets to the majors, as even Cervelli won’t be ready until 2010. So what are the Yankees to do in the meantime? Saying their prayers for Jorge Posada’s shoulder will, by dint of his contract and the utter lack of available productive catchers, have to be a large part of their approach heading into 2009, but there are ways they can strengthen the safety net below Georgie.

With Cervelli likely ticketed for a repeat at Double-A, at least to start the year, the Yankees can offer a veteran backup a minor league deal with the promise of a starting job at triple-A and a not-unrealistic shot at finding himself behind the dish for the Yankees on a regular basis. Last year Moeller, Stewart, and busted Rockies prospect J.D. Closser were the best the Yankees could do. This winter, I think they can do better. Though, not necessarily a lot better (these are back-up catchers we’re talking about after all). Here’s a sample, with Moeller included as a point of comparison:

Player Age* Career Stats OPS+ CS%
Gregg Zaun 38 .251/.344/.386 90 25%
Paul Lo Duca 37 .286/.337/.409 97 30%
Josh Bard 31 .265/.333/.395 96 19%
David Ross 32 .222/.309/.435 90 38%
Javier Valentin 33 .251/.310/.402 82 30%
Chad Moeller 34 .224/.286/.345 61 26%

*as of May 1, 2009

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of these men will have to settle for a minor-league deal, though at least Ross and Valentin, who were teammates on the Reds through August of last year, and quite possibly Lo Duca, who was released by the Nationals at the end of July, are unlikely to do better.

Lo Duca showed he still has a little something left by hitting .294/.400/.353 in 40 plate appearances for the Marlins over the final two-months of the season. Still, there’s a very real possibility that he’s finished. That’s less of a concern with Zaun, who came close to his career rates for Toronto last year, though he did fall short of them for the first time since he joined the Blue Jays in 2004. Ross is an erratic hitter with the most power on the above list (in 2006 and 2007 combined, he hit 38 homers in 558 at-bats), but a complete inability to hit for average that drags his on-base percentage dangerously low. He also has the best arm.

Valentin is the weakest hitter on the list above Moeller, but, like Zaun and Bard, he’s a switch-hitter. That’s significant as Molina has pretty severe splits (career: .263/.304/.400 vs. lefties; .225/.262/.309 vs. righties). If Posada’s unable to catch, the Yankees could greatly improve on their 2008 situation simply by finding someone to platoon with Molina. Valentin is a .258/.313/.414 hitter against righties. Given that the average major league catcher hit .257/.325/.390 last year, the Yankees could bring themselves up to respectability with a Molina-Valentin platoon as their worst-case scenario.

Bard and Zaun are better against lefties. Of course, they’re also better than Molina against lefties, and still have an on-base advantage over Valentin against righties, though they trail him in average and slugging against the normal-handed. Speaking of Bard, he missed most of last season due to an ankle sprain and a triceps injury and didn’t hit a lick when he was active. It’s unlikely that that will drop his value enough for him to have to settle for a minor league deal, but that’s just as well given that he’s both overrated at the plate and has the weakest arm on the above list.

Still, there are some decent back-up catching options in the free agent market. Given the fact that we really have no idea what to expect from Posada in terms of his ability to make throws from behind the plate, and thus his ability to remain a viable major league catcher, the Yankees would do well to bring one if not a few of the men on the above list into camp.


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[1] postmortem: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2008/11/07/2008-post-mortem-what-went-wrong/

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