As the season approaches I’m going to analyze the 2010 performance of every major player on the Yankees to draw attention to things to watch for from these players in 2011. I’ll be organizing these posts by position, publishing a single post for each position on the field, each starting pitcher, and the bullpen. I’ll be moving through the diamond in order, from catcher to right field. I’m lumping catcher and DH together as a single post because Jorge Posada will be heavily involved in each role.
The cacther position has been in flux on the Yankees for some time. Jorge Posada started at least 120 games at catcher every season from 2000 to 2007. Jorge missed most of 2008 with an injury, and has not started 90 games in a season at catcher since. Last season he made only 78 starts at the position. Over the years critics have derided Jorge’s defense while ignoring the cold hard fact that Posada made at least 80 starts at catcher for teams that went on to win the World Series four times. However bad Jorge’s defense may be, his overall play behind the plate has been good enough to make his team a contender, season after season.
The reason the Yankees have been so anxious to keep Posada behind the plate as long as they can is because he has a career slash line of .275/.377/.479 and a career wOBA of .369. That’s excellent offensive production from any player, but it puts a catcher in the Hall of Fame discussion. The Yankees get to trot out a quietly historic bat game after game at a position most teams stock with below average hitters. The effect has been to give the Yankees a full nine outs through the lineup when most teams have eight (sometimes fewer).
Although it came into focus for most fans (myself included) in 2010, the Yankees have had a wrinkle in that winning formula for a while now. Injury and age limited Jorge and his .357 wOBA to 78 starts behind the dish last season, which forced the Yankees to turn to Francisco Cervelli and his much crappier .315 wOBA for 80 starts. It doesn’t do much good to pay Jorge more than $13 million a season if he’s healing on the bench. That’s why Posada is being sent to pasture in 2011. He remains a major leaguer with the lumber, but he poses too much of an injury risk to make 120 plus starts a year behind the plate anymore (I call this risk the Frankie Factor).
Although Posada is an expensive option at DH, the move is good baseball. Jorge is a professional hitter. Unless there is some magic calculus to playing catcher for him that allows him to hit, he should be in a position to at least match his 2010 performance. If playing DH keeps him healthy — a good bet given that most of Posada’s injuries last season were related to catching — Jorge may even put up a better line this season. Furthermore, playing him at DH gives the Yankees flexibility in the other direction. There were times in 2010 that the Yankees needed to start Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter at DH when Posada was also unavailable. The only thing worse than having Francisco Cervelli in your lineup is to have Cervelli and Ramiro Pena or Eduardo Nunez in that lineup. A healthy Jorge at DH means that the Yankees will never have to start more than one replacement level bat in a game. If someone else needs to get half a day off then Jorge can gear up.
There are two variables that will determine whether or not this experiment is a success. One has already been mentioned, Jorge’s ability to succeed as a DH. The second variable is Russell Martin.
The Yankees added Martin this past offseason to be the team’s primary catcher, at least coming out of camp (more on that to come). The one year $4 million deal is cheap enough, but it is not without its risks. Martin missed a chunk of 2010 with a fractured hip and is recovering from knee surgery. Although he enters the season at only the age of 28, there is no guarantee Martin can recover well enough to withstand the rigors of a full major league season. If he does, then the Yankees may be in a position to go back to their offensive formula of old, one that featured nine legitimate hitters. In 2007 and 2008 Martin was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, posting back-to-back wOBA’s of .368 and .351. Since then his wOBA has never been higher than .307 — worse than Cervelli’s.
Injuries aside, Martin’s offensive struggles have been due to declining power. His ISO was .176 in 2007, before falling to .116 in 2008, and to below .090 since then. The Yankees are betting that a fully healthy Martin will see his power numbers return. They are banking on the fact that even if he continues to be a light hitting catcher, he has never posted an OBP below .347 in the majors, which he did in 2010. As bad as it may be to have a singles hitter in your lineup in the AL East, it is most important for the Yankees to have batters who don’t make out. If Martin can’t knock in runs anymore, there are other players on the team who can. The Yankees figure to get their money’s worth if Martin can maintain an OBP of at least .350 in 2010.
Looming in the background, of course, is Jesus Montero. Montero’s performance the past few seasons in the minors can be summed up with a single table:
The data above are taken from Fangraphs. The projection is taken from Bill James‘ 2011 forecast, and is a hypothesis of what Montero would do in the big leagues. I don’t need fancy numbers or computers to say that this dude can hit. While it appears that his numbers took a beating in AAA, the truth of the matter is that he was ice cold the first half of the season, and lava hot in the second half. The numbers combine for a phenomenal season from a player who was 20 years old at the time. James’ projection seems wildly optimistic for a player who has never taken a swing in the majors, but even a fraction of that performance would be solid enough to earn Montero a spot on the big league club for some time.
Yankee fans in the blogosphere have been pining for Jesus for the past two seasons. 2011 figures to be the year they finally get their wish. This year it doesn’t appear to be a question of if we will see Montero take some big league swings, only a question of when. My money is on June. The Yankees need to see if Montero can repeat his 2010 performance in AAA, while also testing Martin’s ability to return to form. All of this will give Montero more valuable practice behind the plate in the minors, his defense being the only weak element of his game. But June is a guess, and hardly a rule. If Montero rakes in the spring, Martin struggles, or some combination of the two, the Yankees have little to lose from bringing Jesus up a bit earlier in what is clearly a rebuilding year.
The odd man out in all of this is Francisco Cervelli. Good riddance. Cisco seems like a nice-enough guy. He’s just not very good at baseball — at any element of baseball. He can’t hit. He can’t defend. His 2010 line of .271/.359/.335 was actually better than Martin’s, but it was uneven. Frankie started hot and ended hot, but was ice-cold in the middle. His upside was meant to be his defense, but that upside never materialized. Last season Cervelli rated as a minus defender. Over roughly the same number of games, putting up roughly the same slash line, Martin was worth 2.1 wins while Cervelli was worth only 1.1 due largely to Cervelli’s complete and total lack of power, and his poor defense. If Montero fights his way onto the big league club and proves he can catch, then Russell Martin becomes perhaps the game’s best backup catcher and Cisco packs his bags.
The Yankees are stronger at catcher and DH than they’ve been the past few seasons. Jorge projects brilliantly as an every day DH, while Martin figures, at worst, to be an adequate hitter who plays better defense than anyone who called pitches for the Bombers last season. That’s the worst case scenario. The middle case is that Martin is healthy and hitting well, with Jorge occasionally gearing up to give Martin’s surgically reconstructed body a break. They would combine to be excellent options at both positions. The best case scenario — the juicy one — is that Montero earns his stripes, and the Yankees go to war with a three headed monster of Montero, Jorge and Martin at catcher and DH. For my part I believe the Yankees will wind up with some combination of the latter two outcomes, with problems stemming from Martin’s hitting and Montero’s defense. Most teams would kill to have those problems.
There is a chance that Montero is traded for a starting pitcher, but that outcome seems slim. Zack Greinke was as good a starting option as the Yankees could hope to find and they didn’t offer up Montero. While Brian Cashman has been willing to trade Montero for pitching in the past, he has demonstrated a keen understanding of the prospect’s value, offering him for either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, essentially straight up. Both of those seem like fair trades. Cashman was smart not to sweaten those deals too much, even if it cost the Yankees great pitchers. The problem is simple. Cashman understands Montero’s value, and doesn’t want to give up the farm for pitching that can eventually be bought, while no team in the majors wants to make a fair trade with the Yankees. Expect Montero to stay in pinstripes, and take swings in The Show no later than June.
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