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Observations From Cooperstown–Fifth Starters, Backup Catchers, and Rickey At 50

The heralded off season acquisitions of Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett have answered most of the Yankees’ questions surrounding first base and starting pitching, but at least one rotation place remains available for the taking. The identity of the No. 5 starter is still unknown, pending the re-signing of Andy Pettitte or the importing of one of Milwaukee’s Best (Ben Sheets) or a Fallen Angel (Jon Garland). So what should the Yankees’ best course of action be, a proven free agent commodity, or a four-way battle of young arms Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Alfredo Aceves, and lefty Phil Coke?

When it comes to pitching, I tend to believe in the theory of excess, especially in light of the twin avalanches of injuries that have assaulted the Bronx the past two summers. I’d like to see Sheets signed to a two-year deal, or Pettitte to a one-year deal, with Garland a less expensive backup plan should those offers fall short. Signing one of those three would allow the Yankees to use Aceves as a long man in the bullpen while having Hughes and Kennedy in reserve at Scranton-Wilkes Barre. The days of getting through a season with five starters are long gone; you’d better have at least seven to eight pitchers capable of giving you a substantial number of starts and innings from April to October…


The YES Network’s Steven Goldman, often an astute observer of Yankeeland, was a thousand per cent correct this week in offering his assessment of the tenuous state of the Yankees’ catching situation. If the Yanks are not careful, they may end up with Jose Molina again doing the majority of the catching, an untenable prospect given Molina’s overall futility at the plate. (With Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera set to play center field, the Yankees cannot afford to give away two lineup slots to defense-first players.) In the event that Jorge Posada’s surgically repaired shoulder allows him to catch no more than 80-90 games this summer, the Yankees need another catcher to share the burden. They won’t necessarily require a No. 1 catcher to fill the void, but they would need someone who is capable of splitting the load with Molina in some kind of a platoon arrangement.

Let me advocate two possibilities, one a free agent and the other on the trade market. The free agent is switch-hitting ex-Red Javier Valentin, who is decent enough with the bat to serve as a platoon partner and “designated” pinch-hitter for Molina. It isn’t that Valentin is a great offensive player, but he happens to be a much better hitter than Molina, with a career on-base percentage that’s 35 points higher. At 33 years of age, he’d be happy with a one-year deal, making him a far cheaper alternative to Jason Varitek. (That would also spare us the inevitable Varitek-Alex Rodriguez soap opera.) The other possibility is Chris Coste, now relegated to third-string catching status with the world champion Phillies, behind Carlos Ruiz and the newly acquired Ronny Paulino. Even at the age of 35, Coste has acceptable on-base skills and enough versatility to play the infield corners in the pinch. He shouldn’t cost too much in a trade either, maybe something at the level of a Chase Wright or an Alan Horne…


Last week’s election of ex-Yankee Rickey Henderson and Boston’s Big Jim Rice to the Hall of Fame figures to give the village of Cooperstown a much-needed boost in tourism this summer, especially when compared with the meager turnout for the 2008 induction. Fewer than 10,000 fans visited Cooperstown for the induction of Goose Gossage and Dick Williams, despite Gossage’s obvious connection to the Yankees from 1978 to 1983. (Perhaps Goose didn’t pitch long enough for the Yankees, or maybe he simply played too long ago, but his induction brought surprisingly few fans north from the Bronx.) This year’s induction attendance could double last year’s total of about 8,000 visitors—but not because of Henderson’s superstar presence. Henderson played only four and a half seasons with the Yankees, preventing him from developing the cult following of someone like Don Mattingly or Paul O’Neill or Bernie Williams. Given the distance between Cooperstown and Oakland, the team with which Rickey is most associated, it’s likely that few A’s fans will make the cross-country trek to Cooperstown.

So where will the attendance boost come from? There will be a large contingent of Red Sox faithful in town for the long-awaited induction of Rice, who played his entire career in Beantown. Boston is a mere four hours away from Cooperstown; the Hall of Fame is already a convenient destination for members of the dreaded Red Sox Nation, and that will only intensify during what figures to be the Summer of Rice…


Speaking of Henderson, I’d love to see the “Man of Steal” carry through with his wish of playing one final season in the major leagues. Even at 50, he’s still in prime physical condition and probably capable of filling a role as a pinch-runner and fifth outfielder. He’s also a far smarter player than most give him credit for, a student of both pitchers’ repertoires and their moves to first base. If the Yankees find themselves in a pennant race come September, why not sign Henderson as an extra body for the 40-man roster? I’d enjoy the theater of watching him enter a tie game as a pinch-runner, pawing his way off first base against a pitcher 20 years his junior. If nothing else, it would beat watching Angel Berroa under similar circumstances.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLBlogs at MLB.com.


1 Diane Firstman   ~  Jan 24, 2009 1:45 pm

Perhaps Cooperstown attendance was down in part due to $4/gallon gas at the time.

2 OldYanksFan   ~  Jan 24, 2009 2:43 pm

I know this sounds ugly, but considering Javier Valentin is a career 82 OPS+ guy, is it worth looking at Pudge for $2m + heavy incentives? I don't think he will get very many decent offers.

3 Mattpat11   ~  Jan 24, 2009 3:03 pm

I have absolutely zero interest in Jon Garland. Might as well just throw Aceves out there.

4 The Hawk   ~  Jan 24, 2009 3:32 pm

Uh, isn't Freddy Garcia taken?

5 monkeypants   ~  Jan 24, 2009 3:59 pm

I'm gettin' that ol' three-catcher-on-the-roster feelin' again.

6 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jan 24, 2009 4:23 pm

Yes, Hawk, Garcia signed a minor league deal with the Mets a few days ago.

7 knuckles   ~  Jan 24, 2009 6:00 pm

How'd the Phils get Ronny Paulino? Always liked that guy.

8 Bruce Markusen   ~  Jan 24, 2009 6:57 pm

Just to let folks know, I submitted this article on Thursday, before the news about Garcia signing with the Mets. At the point I wrote it, Garcia was still contemplating both the Mets and Yankees. There is often a lag time between the time that articles are written/submitted and when they are posted.

Ronny Paulino was acquired by the Phillies in December for minor league catcher Jason Jaramillo. So the Phils now have Ruiz, Paulino, and Coste--a pretty deep catching corps.

In regards to Garland, he has had ERA's of 4.50 or less in three of the last four years. His career ERA is just under four and a half. He's also pretty much automatic to give you about 32 starts and 200 innings, which helps avoid giving starts to the Ponsons and Rasners of the world. If Garland's your fifth starter, that's a sign that you have a pretty good team.

9 thelarmis   ~  Jan 24, 2009 7:25 pm

man, i would LOVE to see rickey come back and play! not necessarily with the yankees, but just somewhere in mlb. it would do my heart good for him to hit 3 more homers and join the 300-300 club!!!

3 catchers is indeed a drag. i wouldn't mind bringing pudge back, at the right price...

10 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jan 24, 2009 7:32 pm

The problem with the Phillies idea is that Ruiz isn't so good or so young that he deserves to keep the starting job. I see that depth as Ruiz vs. Paulino for starter this spring with Coste remaining #2 behind whomever wins. Coste is indeed a valuable bench player, but more valuable than the sort of player a non-prospect such as Chase Wright or Alan Horne is likely to get you. Coste would be an upgrade over Molina at the plate by leaps and bounds, but he's another righty who would likely still need a platoon partner such as Valentin should Posada prove unable to fill that role.

11 williamnyy23   ~  Jan 24, 2009 10:23 pm

Other than something small, I don't think you can worry about the catcher position until Posada proves he can't play 100-120 games. Also, in trying to think of possible back-ups, it is important to remember that catcher is right with SS on the left of the defensive spectrum. If Molina has another season playing defense and throwing out runners like he did in 2008, he starts off with a lot of value. Unfortunately, his OPS+ of 60 severely eats away at that, but I am not sure a guy like Valentin, who can hit a little, is a better option. Valentin was/is a very bad defensive catcher, so he needs to hit a lot more than he does to be useful. Coste would be a better option, but I agree with [10] in that the Phillies don't seem eager to get rid of him.

Instead of looking for a marginal guy like Coste or Valentin, I'd rather enter the season hoping Posada can catch full-time, and react only if he proves otherwise. If that should happen, you could then make a more aggressive effort for a catching prospect like Teagarden or Salty. Also, a few months might be enough time for Cervelli to prove worthy of a shot, or for a guy like Buster Posey to force Bengie Molina out of SF.

In other words, with the options being so poor, I'd rather bide my time.

12 monkeypants   ~  Jan 24, 2009 10:41 pm

[11] William,

Good heavens, we agree again. The key to the entire situation--as I posted a few days ago--is Posada's health. If he can catch more or less full time (100+ games), the BUC question is far less important. Molina or someone else, it's just swapping interchangeable parts.

But if Posada can't catch, then the Yankees will need a real (starting) catcher, not another BUC.

Of course, if they are able to land a legitimate starter for the right price, or a real catching prospect, they should. The best case scenario would be to acquire a reasonable starter and use him as the BUC (and jettison Molina), but we can't complain if even the Yankees are not multiple starters deep at every position.

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