With the opening of the New York Yankees spring training camp in Tampa, FL, we will now look at each position on the team to assess their chances in 2015. After a disappointing 2014 season with a roster riddled with significant injuries the Yankees have reshuffled the deck with a lot of fresh faces to join some old ones. Let’s look at them all beginning with the catching position.
Brian McCann, 31 (.232, 23 HRs, 75 RBIs, 140 games)
When the Yankees signed McCann to a five-year, $85 million free-agent contract last winter they were hoping they had solved the team’s problem with offense from the catching position that had festered since Jorge Posada retired in 2011.
McCann, a native of Athens, GA, left the Atlanta Braves hoping to duplicate his eight full seasons of averaging 21 homers and 80 RBIs. He pretty much did that by producing 23 homers and 78 RBIs last season. The issue with McCann was a slow start and the fact he hit 50 points below his career average of .272.
The Yankees have said that they believe McCann’s slow start and his low batting average was a product of his unfamiliarity with pitchers in the American League. That seems like a plausible reason and the Yankees are sure hoping that was the case.
The fact is that McCann’s batting averages for the past three seasons since he hit .270 in 2011 have been .230, .256 and .232. The Yankees do not want to think of those marks as McCann’s new normal because they need his bat in the middle of the order this season.
For a team that is woefully lacking in power and RBI production McCann, when healthy, provides it. His left-hand power translates well to the short dimensions in right-field at Yankee Stadium and McCann seemed able to find the right stroke to get 19 long balls out at home. However, McCann was virtually absent on the road, where he hit just four homers and drove in a paltry 22 runs. The Yankees would like to see him do better away from the friendly confines.
“I think McCann came on strong for us in the second half, and I think next year we’ll have a full season of what we expected from him,” general manager Brian Cashman told reporters. “It’s important. Bottom line, it’s important. We need to be a better offensive club than we were last year.”
McCann drew rave reviews from his pitchers for his game calling, blocking and pitch framing behind the plate. Although McCann has never won a Gold Glove he is considered above average behind the plate. He committed just four errors and last season he managed to throw out 37 percent of potential base-stealers, the highest rate of his career.
With power at a premium and the speed game on the rise throughout Major League Baseball, McCann does provide a pretty good deterrent to the running game.
But perhaps McCann’s largest contribution to the Yankees this season will be his leadership in the clubhouse. With the retirement of team captain and future Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, McCann is going to be expected to take care of business behind the scenes and be the team’s main face to the media.
One of the more unexpected developments from last season was McCann’s emergence from behind the plate to play first base. That was out of necessity due to the extended periods of time Mark Teixeira was unavailable last season. McCann had never played the position.
Manager Joe Girardi pressed McCann into service and he started 11 games at the position. The surprise was that McCann – though no threat of winning a Gold Glove there either – proved he was more than adequate. He made only one error.
Though he is not going to be expected to play the position much if at all this season, it does provide a potential landing spot for him later in his contract with the Yankees. It would allow the Yankees to keep his bat in the lineup and free the veteran from the wear and tear of catching.
The Yankees entered 2014 with an extremely strong group of catchers at the major and minor-league levels.
They broke spring camp with 28-year-old Francisco Cervelli as McCann’s backup. Throughout Cervelli’s six-year stint with the Yankees he has been prone to injury and 2014 was no different for him.
Cervelli pulled his right hamstring running the bases in Boston on April 14 and he was placed on the 60-day disabled list, short-circuiting yet another season for the Venezuelan native. When Cervelli did return it was in September and he ended up batting .301 with two home runs and 13 RBIs in 49 games.
In the offseason the Yankees elected to trade Cervelli to the team where former Yankee catchers seem to find a home: the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Veteran catcher Russell Martin left the Yankees after two seasons in the winter of 2013 to sign a free-agent contract with the Bucs. He was joined in 2014 by veteran backup catcher Chris Stewart, who the Yankees let go last winter.
But now that Martin has left the Pirates to sign a five-year, $82 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, Cervelli figures to start for the Pirates in 2014 with Stewart as his backup.
That leaves the Yankees with a pair of catchers vying to be McCann catching caddy in 2015.
One is 23-year-old John Ryan Murphy, who made his major-league debut when Cervelli landed on the disabled list last April. Murphy quickly drew rave reviews from the Yankees’ coaching staff for his defense.
Murphy also proved that he could be productive as a hitter, which was his history in the minors. Murphy batted .284 with one home run and nine RBIs in 32 games (21 starts) with the big club after hitting .246 with six homers and 28 RBIs in 51 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
It was Murphy’s emergence last season that allowed the Yankees to trade Cervelli to the Pirates on Nov. 13 in exchange for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson.
Last season catching instructor Gary Tuck compared Murphy’s catching style to that of Girardi and told the Wall Street Journal that he “as good as anybody I’ve ever had – and that’s 40 years of some of the greatest catchers who have ever been behind the plate.”
Murphy’s spring competition will be 26-year-old Austin Romine, who batted .242 with six homers and 33 RBIs at Scranton in 2014. He played in only seven games with the Yankees in 2014 and hit .231.
Romine is considered a major-league quality catcher defensively, however, his weak bat has been holding him back. Though he averaged .275 throughout his minor-league career, he has only batted .204 in span of 76 games with the Yankees.
So he enters spring training behind the younger Murphy on the depth chart. However, there is one thing in Romine’s favor for supplanting Murphy as McCann’s backup: He is out of options.
That mens the Yankees would not be able to option Romine back to Scranton at the end of camp. They would be forced to trade or release him. So there is a scenario where the Yankees could elect to install Romine as the backup and allow Murphy to catch on a regular basis at Triple-A to further his development.
The Yankees perhaps further weakened the catching position by electing to trade 24-year-old Pete O’Brien to the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline on July 31 last season in exchange for infielder Martin Prado.
O’Brien had hit a combined 65 home runs over three minor-league seasons with the Yankees after being selected in the second round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. O’Brien had hit a combined .267 with 23 doubles, 33 homers and 70 RBIs with Class A Tampa and Double-A Trenton up to that point.
Though the Yankees were enamored with his prodigious power, O’Brien struggled defensively behind the plate. He ended up being shifted to first base and outfield for long stretches of last season.
The Yankees also ended up dealing Prado to the Miami Marlins on Dec. 19 as part of a five-player deal than allowed the Yankees to obtain right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, who is expected to be a starter with the Yankees this season.
But even though the Yankees dealt O’Brien away, the Yankees still have their second-best prospect in 22-year-old catcher Gary Sanchez, who batted .270 with 13 home runs and 65 RBIs in 110 games at Trenton last season.
The Dominican was signed in 2009 at age 16 and he has been impressive at every stop along the way. He has hit at least 13 home runs in each of his minor-league seasons and the scouts believe his stroke will make him a very good all-around hitter at the major-league level.
His defense is still a work in progress but he does feature a very good arm.
Sanchez has no chance of making the team’s roster but he will be ticketed to Triple-A. He will have a chance to play there regularly. There is a chance that if an injury develops at the position Sanchez could make his major-league debut in 2015.
If Sanchez develops as the Yankees hope he does they might have the flexibility to move McCann to first base eventually when the young catcher is ready. It is rapidly becoming sooner rather than later.
But time is still on the side of Sanchez.
OVERALL POSITION ANALYSIS: EXCELLENT
McCann was a seven-time All-Star selection and he won five Silver Slugger awards with the Braves so there is no reason to believe that he could not regain that status with the Yankees in 2015. He is going to be asked to shoulder a big burden this season.
He is being asked to handle the pitchers, call games, hit for power, drive in runs and be a team leader in the clubhouse. Because McCann is more than capable of doing all those things well there is nothing standing in his way now.
Look for a huge comeback season for the veteran catcher.
It does not really matter who gets the backup job. However, Sanchez will develop much quicker at Triple-A if Murphy is around. Look for the Yankees to keep Murphy and allow Romine to walk as a free agent.
The catching prospects for the Yankees look bright for many years to come if Sanchez delivers as advertised when he is ready to assume the job in a few years. The Yankees, however, would be wise to find another young catcher to groom like Sanchez.
NEXT: FIRST BASE