It appears the first plank to rebuilding the New York Yankees into a playoff contender has been hammered in place.
It took an offer of five years and $85 million to lure Georgia native Brian McCann from the Atlanta Braves to the Big Apple and it will be money very well spent.
McCann, 29, hit .256 with 20 home runs and 57 RBIs in 102 games with the Braves last season. In his nine-year career, McCann has hit 176 homers and driven in 661 runs while hitting .277. That is far better that what the Yankees had on hand last season.
As power-hitting switch-hitter Jorge Posada eased into retirement the Yankees turned to Russell Martin in 2011 to provide some power and defense behind the plate. For two seasons, Martin provided both those things but he chose to accept a more lucrative contract offer with the Pittsburgh Pirates last winter.
Martin, 30, hit .226 with 15 homers and 55 RBIs in 127 games with the much-improved Bucs in 2013. He was sorely missed in the Bronx, however.
After auditioning holdover backups Francisco Cervelli, 27, and Chris Stewart, 31, in spring training the Yankees selected Cervelli as their starting catcher to begin the season. But much like almost every other player on the roster, Cervelli fell early in the season to a broken finger on his right hand.
The Yankees did not know at the time that Cervelli’s last game would be on April 26.
First there there was an extended process after surgery which delayed his rehab. Then Cervelli ended up suffering an injury to his right elbow.
Later, part of the Major League Baseball’s investigation into Biogenesis resulted in Cervelli accepting a 50-game suspension without pay for his admission into using performance enhancing drugs. So Cervelli’s season consisted of 17 games in which he hit .269 with three home runs and eight RBIs.
Cervelli’s injury forced the Yankees to use a career backup in Stewart as their starting catcher for the remainder of the season. Although Stewart was hitting a robust .284 as late as June 11, his season quickly nose-dived from there and ended up hitting an anemic .211 with three homers and 25 RBIs in 109 games.
Rookie Austin Romine, 25, was brought up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on April 27 to back up Stewart and he did not fare much batter at the plate. Romine hit .207 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 60 games.
The Yankees had admitted that they were allowing Martin to go in order to usher in a new philosophy of “defense first” behind home plate. Though Cervelli, Stewart and Romine were not accomplished hitters each of them could be counted on to call a good game, block pitches in the dirt and control the other teams’ running game.
Stewart was exceptional. He threw out 31 percent of potential base-stealers and committed only two errors.
However, on a team that started the season with some 190 home runs short on power and who lost most of the remaining power they had on their roster to injury, Stewart Cervelli and Romine stuck out like sore thumbs because of their lack of power and production.
On a franchise that fielded the likes of legends such as Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Posada, it seems only fitting the Yankees would quickly switch gears from their “defense first” approach and find a catcher who can put the ball into the seats.
McCann certainly can do that.
The fact that he is a left-handed hitter makes him very attractive to the Yankees because of the short porch in right-field.
McCann is a seven-time All-Star, was the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player in 2010 and was a five-time Silver Slugger award winner.
In 2006, McCann posted his best season as a pro. He hit .333 with 24 home runs and 93 RBIs. He has averaged 21 homers and 80 RBIs in his eight full major-league seasons.
Though he has never been awarded a Gold Glove, McCann is not exactly a liability on a defense either. He has thrown out 200 of 842 base-runners in his career, which works out to a respectable 23.8 percent. He only committed one error in 92 games behind the plate last season.
The Yankees see McCann as a starting catcher but he also could remain in the lineup as designated hitter against right-handed pitching. That is one of the reasons McCann was looking to move to the American League. With the Braves he had only could pinch-hit in games he did not start.
The Yankees have already indicated that they intend to offer Cervelli a contract for 2014 and Romine certainly factors into the equation as a backup. But McCann’s signing likely ended Stewart’s days in pinstripes. He probably will not be tendered a contract offer and thus will become a free agent.
The Yankees do have to be encouraged with the development of J.R. Murphy, 22.
Murphy received a late call-up and, despite the fact he hit .154 in 16 games, he made great strides in the minors, hitting .248 with nine homers and 44 RBIs in 110 games between Double-A Trenton and Scranton. Murphy provides the Yankees with some depth behind the injury-prone Cervelli and Romine, who has had a history of lower-back issues.
The big prize in the Yankees minor-league remains 20-year-old Gary Sanchez, who hit a combined .253 with 15 home runs and 71 RBIs at stops at High-A Tampa and Trenton.
Sanchez, much like his predecessor Jesus Montero, has a bat that looks like it will make him a potential star at the major-league level. The big concern with the Yankees, as it was with Montero, is Sanchez’s defense.
Though Sanchez has made great strides in his four minor-league seasons behind the plate, he has committed 43 errors, including 16 and 11 the past two seasons. His arm is exceptional, though. He has nailed 33.4 % of would-be base-stealers.
With McCann’s five-year deal with a vesting option for a sixth season that makes the deal potentially worth $100 million, Sanchez might have a tough time shoving aside the veteran down the road. But it does not look like Sanchez will get that chance until 2015 anyway.
The McCann signing does prove that the Yankees have reached a point where they realized getting by on “cheap” free agents and waiver-wire pickups were not going to cut it if the team expects to be competitive in 2014 and beyond.
While the Yankees have McCann on board they are also looking to keep second baseman Robinson Cano as a Yankee for the remainder of his career, if he and his agent Jay-Z realize that he is not going to get the 10 years and $310 million he is seeking.
The team is also interested in re-signing right-hander Hiroki Kuroda and making a huge posting bid for fellow Japanese right-hander Mashiro Tanaka, 25, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA in 2013 for the Rakuten Golden Eagles and is being compared to Texas Rangers star right-hander Yu Darvish.
The Yankees are also contacting outfielders Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo as well as hoping to convince Curtis Granderson to remain with the team.
The Yankees are showing signs that they are going to be aggressive in the free-agent market as they were the winter before the 2009 season when they signed left-hander CC Sabathia, right-hander A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira to lucrative free-agent contracts.
Coincidentally, that was the last season the Yankees won a world championship.
General manager Brian Cashman and managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner seem to be on the same page this offseason and it is looking like that their statement that the $189 million payroll mark was more of a target that is not set in stone may mean Yankee fans might have a team they rally around in 2014 instead of the sad group they fielded in 2013.
There seems to be hope in the Bronx and it all starts with Brain McCann.
Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!
CATCHER – POSITION OPEN
When it comes to catchers, Yankee fans have been pretty spoiled. The position has been manned by such legends as Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.
Of course, there have been years when the position has been filled by less than legends like Rick Cerone, Mike Stanley and Joe Girardi. Yes, him.
It seems that 2013 is one of those years the Yankees will be fielding a catcher who will be even lesser of a legend. The departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates has left this position open with a four candidates vying for it beginning this spring.
None of the four have anywhere near the power Martin provided. But some are just as adept defensively. The Yankees signaled this was the direction they were going when they chose let Martin walk and opted not to sign free agent A.J. Pierzynski.
Pierzynski, 36, hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs with the White Sox last season and he would have loved the short rightfield porch as a left-handed hitter. But the Yankees passed on him because of his defensive shortcomings and he signed with the Texas Rangers.
The Yankees four candidates are: former Posada and Martin backup Francisco Cervelli, 2012’s backup Chris Stewart, rookie prospect Austin Romine and former Los Angeles Angels backup Bobby Wilson.
The quartet are politely described as “defensive-minded” catchers, which in baseball-speak means they can’t hit a lick. For Yankee fans used to cyclical lineups without a weak link, the 2013 version will have one huge hole in it here. Whoever wins this job will be the opposing pitcher’s “escape hatch” out of big innings.
The leading candidate for the job appears to be Cervelli, 26, who ironically spent all of last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because of the presence of Martin and Stewart.
On the last day of spring training the Yankees swung a last-minute deal with the San Francisco Giants to acquire Stewart, who was out of minor-league options. The Yankees were so in love with Stewart’s defensive work behind the plate they opted to ship Cervelli out and he was not pleased about it – mostly because of the poor timing.
Cervelli went to Scranton determined to show the Yankees he belonged on the roster, but he hit just .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games. That is odd considering Cervelli had hit .271 with five home runs and 71 RBIs in 184 games over three previous seasons in the majors.
Cervelli admits that he was not happy about his demotion and it did affect his game.
Cervelli’s defense is considered pretty good. He sets a good target, he knows the hitters, calls a good game, has the respect of the pitchers and the coaching staff. His weakness lies in a somewhat erratic throwing arm. He has only thrown out 18.3 percent of base-stealers in his major-league career (23 out of 93 attempts).
He also has committed 20 errors in 177 games, most of those on throwing errors.
At Scranton, Cervelli threw out 30 percent of potential base-stealers but committed a whopping 15 passed balls.
So Cervelli’s defense is definite notch below what Martin and Stewart provided in 2012 and Cervelli is going to have to improve if he wants to win the starting job and keep it.
There is no doubt he is the best hitter of the bunch, albeit he lacks power. Cervelli is a spray hitter who is very adept hitting with runners in scoring position. He also is not bad a bunter and will give himself up to advance a runner. Those things should help the Yankees in 2013 since the team does lack power.
One concern with Cervelli is his penchant for injuries. He suffered a broken wrist in a home-plate collision in spring training in 2008. He also has suffered a trio of concussions the past few years and broke a bone in his foot in the spring of 2010 fouling a ball off his foot.
In winter ball in his native Venezuela, he suffered a whiplash injury, which later proved to be minor.
So durability is a definite issue with Cervelli.
Stewart, 30, has been a backup catcher throughout his career. The most games he has played is the 51 he started with Giants in 2011. He started 46 games for the Yankees last season and he batted .241 with one home run and 13 RBIs. Stewart actually improved some with the bat in 2012 because he is a career .217 hitter.
But he does not have a very high ceiling as a hitter.
Stewart enters the catching competition as probably the best defensive option the Yankees have.
This is despite that he set a personal high for himself of with eight passed balls last season. Then again, the Yankees’ pitchers are not the easiest to catch.
Stewart, however, committed only four errors and he cut down 22.8 percent of base-stealers after he threw out an amazing 39.2 percent with the Giants in 2011. Stewart not only has a strong arm, he is also accurate with it. It was obvious that not many teams wanted to challenge him last season.
Though Stewart won’t hit much, he will be an asset against teams that are aggressive on basepaths such as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Angels.
There was all kinds of talk this offseason that Romine, 24, was the organization’s choice to start behind the plate in 2013.
But general manager Brian Cashman recently addressed that issue by saying that it was extremely unlikely Romine would be able to win the job this spring coming off a season in which he was plagued with a serious back injury.
The son of former major-league outfielder Kevin Romine played in only 31 games in three stops last season. Romine batted .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in just 103 at-bats.
Despite playing in the shadow of Jesus Montero throughout his minor-league career, the Yankees have always felt that Romine was far superior to Montero on defense and they have hoped that he would develop as a hitter as he matured.
But the back injury, which a recurrence of a previous back strain, certainly has arrested his development. Romine is considered to have a good enough bat to hit for a decent average in the major leagues with low double-digit power potential.
It is likely that the Yankees will take a more cautious approach with Romine this season. He likely would benefit from playing a full season at Scranton to prove his back problems are over. There is no doubt that Romine’s defense is already major-league quality.
Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, two former catchers, absolutely love Romine’s defensive ability. They each say he is ready to play defense at the major-league level now. But the Yankees are waiting for him to prove himself healthy and they would like to see more improvement with his bat.
Wilson, 29, was a backup catcher with the Angels from 2009 through 2012. But he was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays late last season and he never played a game for them before not being tendered a contract offer this offseason.
The Yankees offered him a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. So he will be in the mix for a spot.
Wilson hit .211 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in 75 games with the Angels last season. He is a career .208 hitter in the majors.
But like Cervelli, Stewart and Romine, Wilson is considered an excellent defensive catcher.
In 2012, Wilson committed only four errors and was charged with just two passed balls. He also threw out 28.6 percent of potential base-stealers and he has a 27.1 percent career mark of nailing runners.
Wilson’s only hope seems to be supplanting Stewart as the backup but Stewart’s defense may be just too good. So the Yankees might ask Wilson to accept a minor-league assignment so he can be recalled if either Cervelli or Stewart are injured. That way the Yankees could keep Romine on track for promotion in 2014.
Two years ago, with Martin as the starter and Montero and Romine in the pipeline, catching looked to the strongest position on the team from a long-range standpoint. But the Yankees were not satisfied with Montero’s defense and they traded him to the Seattle Mariners in return for right-hand starter Michael Pineda.
Now with Martin and Montero gone and Romine on the mend, the position seems to rest with catching prospects in the minors.
J.R. Murphy, 21, regressed a bit last season. In 110 games between Class-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, Murphy hit .248 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs.
Scouts still believe that Murphy will develop power as he progresses because he has a short, powerful right-hand stroke. There are doubts about his long-term progress defensively. But, fortunately for Murphy, he also can play third base and he may eventually end up there.
But the player the Yankees are really salivating over is No. 1-ranked prospect Gary Sanchez, who turned 20 in December. Sanchez hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs between Class-A Charleston and Tampa.
The Yankees look at Sanchez as a Montero with better defensive potential. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Sanchez possesses above-average raw power and the potential to be excellent all-around hitter. He did regress a bit defensively last season, but Sanchez has a plus arm and he has time to develop into a good defensive catcher.
There have been rumors the Yankees might be willing to trade Sanchez but it is hard to see what the justification would be for Cashman. Catchers with good power bats like Sanchez do not come along too often and there are slim pickings in looking for a catcher who can match Posada’s or Martin’s production.
The Yankees may have been weakened by the loss of Martin, but the Yankees seem to be committed to starting a catcher with defensive ability and they will not care what they hit. Cervelli seems to have the inside track on the starting job and Stewart looks like he will be hard to beat as the backup.
That will allow the Yankees to get Romine another season of experience at Scranton and Wilson could be a call away at Scranton.
With Romine, Murphy and Sanchez in the pipeline, the Yankees do have some excellent young catchers on the way – particularly the gifted Sanchez. So if the Yankees can just withstand the short-term problem of having pure defensive catchers, the long-term prospects at this position are good.
But Yankee fans might be missing Martin’s power a lot this season.
NOTE: The only position I have not reviewed in this series is designated hitter. There is a good reason for that. The position has not been filled and may not be until spring exhibition games are under way. So this is the last part of the series. I hope it helped set the stage for how the team will fare this spring.
Every spring training game at George M. Steinbrenner Field those of us in Section 205 would see No. 20 in Yankee pinstripes striding toward the plate. At that point we would train our eyes toward a longtime Yankee fan with full-flowing mustache rise from his seat and yell at the top of his lungs “Hip, Hip” and the surrounding crowd of regulars in the section would reply with a raucous “Jor-ge,” which he and the rest us would repeat two more times before every home at-bat.
It was not just a token cheer stolen from our brethren in the Bronx. No, it was a absolute homage to one of the very best catchers in Yankee history. It was done with love and great admiration.
But it has been a foregone conclusion this winter that the ritual of Section 205 would no longer be carried out in 2012. There was a chance the cheer might have rang out if Jorge Posada chose, at age 40, to continue his career in another uniform. But, alas, that will not happen either.
According to an anonymous source reported by WFAN in New York, Posada has elected not play another game and retire as a Yankee after 17 years and 1,574 games behind the plate. Only Bill Dickey (1,708) and Yogi Berra (1,695) played in more games catching for the Yankees.
In hearing the news, my first reaction is sadness, of course. Posada won five World Series titles and was part of the famous “Core Four” along with Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, which is now down to the “Flair Pair” of Jeter and Rivera.
From 1996 through 2001, the New York Yankees won four world championships and Posada was in the middle of just about every one of them, though he was somewhat overshadowed by Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Jeter, Rivera, manager Joe Torre.
But history speaks for itself and Posada hit .273. He is seventh on the Yankees’ all-time list with 379 doubles and 936 walks, eighth with 279 home runs and 11th with 1,065 RBIs. There is no doubt that Posada, a converted second baseman in the minors, was a major cog in Yankee teams that made the playoffs in every season he played for them except 2008.
Posada was greatly disappointed with his final season.
He came to spring training for the first time as non-factor as a catcher. Russell Martin was signed as the new starter and rookies Jesus Montero and Austin Romine were being groomed as replacements. Posada’s catching gear collected dust as he tried to adapt as the team’s switch-hitting designated hitter.
Unfortunately Posada got off to a slow start, particularly against left-handers and lost that part of his duties early in the season. Then on May 14, Posada spotted his name in the No. 9 spot in the batting order in a game against the Boston Red Sox and pride would not allow him to participate in that game.
By September, Posada was also being phased out of the lineup altogether. However, when he was given chances to play in the final few weeks, Posada began to consistently reach base on hits and walks. On Sept. 21, Posada stroked a two-run game-winning single against the Tampa Bay Rays that clinched the American League East title for the Yankees.
Playing a hunch, manager Joe Girardi used Posada in the A.L. Division Series against the Detroit Tigers and Posada responded by hitting .429 (6 for-14) in the series.
But Posda knew that with his four-year $52 million contract coming to an end in 2011 that he would never play for the Yankees again. If he wanted to continue to play it would have to be in a foreign uniform. Posada even began working out on Nov. 1 in anticipation of some offers to play with other teams.
They came. Posada considered them.
But, in the end, Posada realized perhaps it was time to end his career, a grand career at that, as a New York Yankee.
There are those who claim Posada is not worthy of the Hall of Fame. But when you look at the numbers he compiled, you can make a pretty good case for the gritty veteran from Santurce, Puerto Rico.
Posada’s 246 home runs as a catcher are only second to Berra’s 306 on the club’s all-time list. Of the 13 catchers that are currently in Cooperstown, only Berra has better career numbers in all three categories of batting average, home runs and RBIs.
Those numbers are for those who will vote in five years to chew on. But Posada can make a compelling case for joining that group.
He already joins a great lineage of former Yankee greats at catcher, which includes Berra, Dickey and Thurman Munson. His star may not burn as bright as those three but his star certainly burns bright enough to have his number retired somewhere down the road.
Posada apparently will make his decision final in about two weeks. But it won’t take Yankee fans that long to agree that he was certainly one of the classiest leaders of one of the Yankees’ most successful string of teams in their history.
Yogi will always be No. 1 in Yankee hearts but will we never forget what Jorge did in his 17 seasons with the Yankees.
OK. Section 205. One last time and let’s hear it loud and proud: “Hip, Hip, Jorge! Hip-Hip, Jorge! Hip-Hip, Jorge!”