Montero, Romine Will Battle Cervelli For 2012 Role

With the disappointing loss to the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series a distant bad memory, the New York Yankees will look to reconstruct a championship caliber team for the 2012 season. To that end let’s look at what possible moves the Yankees might make to improve their roster. It might seem like a daunting task. But it sure could be worse. Think how tough a time the Boston Red Sox will have rebuilding without general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona.

NEXT:  PART 3 – STARTING LINEUP

PRIORITY NO. 1 - Who will the Yankees keep at catcher?

2011 was actually the Year One A.P. for the Yankees behind the plate. A.P. meaning “After Posada.”

The 40-year-old former All-Star and member of the “Key Three” Yankees that won four world titles over five seasons did not start a single game behind the plate and he only caught seven innings as an emergency replacement in a game in September.

The torch was passed smoothly to free agent Russell Martin, who left the Los Angeles Dodgers after a pair of injury-riddled seasons. Signed to a one-year, $4 million contract with an option for a second season, Martin impressed the Yankees in 2011 with his defense behind the plate.

The 28-year-old Ontario native won a Rawlings Gold Glove Award in 2007 with the Dodgers but the Yankees did not begin to appeciate how good Martin was until they saw him handle their pitching staff this season. He was adept at blocking pitches in the dirt and, though his 30 percent rate of throwing out base-stealers was below his 40 percent career average, it was still better than the what the Yankees had been getting from Posada the past few seasons.

Martin and his toughness turned out to be a good fit for the Yankees despite the fact some nagging injuries cost Martin what looked to be a promising season as a hitter.

Martin was an All-Star catcher with the Dodgers in 2007 and 2008, averaging 16 home runs and 78 RBIs and batting .286 those two years. However, a serious hip injury in 2009 and a right knee injury in 2010 torpedoed his production and allowed the Dodgers to let him walk away as free agent.

The Yankees hoped after recovering from off-season knee surgery, Martin would regain his stroke at the plate. Early in the season, when Martin was healthy, they were proved correct.

At the end of April, Martin was hitting .293 with six home runs and 19 RBIs. However, Martin fouled a ball off his left big toe in early May and, later that month, he also injured his back lifting weights after a game. Martin likely would have benefitted from a stint on the disabled list to heal both injuries.

But he stayed on the active roster and played a lot of games in which his defense was not affected. His offense, however, took a precipitous nosedive. He hit .200 in May, .185 in June and .213 in July. It was obvious to manager Joe Girardi that the back and toe injuries played a big part. Even so, Martin still was selected to his first American League All-Star team.

Martin did pick up his offensive game somewhat in the second half and finished the season with 18 home runs, 65 RBIs and a .237 batting average. Other than the batting average, the Yankees were pleased with his production and his execellent work behind the plate was a huge bonus.

So it will not be surprising to see Martin back behind the plate for the Yankees in 2012.

That is pretty much a given. Posada completed a four-year contract and he will not be offered a contract to stay with the Yankees. He must find a team willing to allow him to catch again or be forced to retire.

The biggest competition for the Yankees for any position in 2012 will be the fight for the backup catching spot because the Yankees have a wealth of options and talent at the position.

Last season, Francisco Cervelli was Martin’s primary backup. Despite missing the first month of the season with a broken bone in right foot he sustained in spring training, Cervelli acquitted himself pretty well.

Cervelli showed a knack for getting key hits with runners in scoring position and,, surprisingly enough, he was developing a bit of a power stroke with the bat until he suffered the third concussion of his career on a violent collision with the Orioles’ Nick Markakis at home plate in a September contest in Baltimore.

Cervelli missed the rest of the season and was not added to the postseason roster.

He hit .266 with four home runs and 22 RBIs in 43 games. But his defense left a little bit to be desired.

Cervelli, 25, committed six errors compared to Martin’s 10 in much fewer games. He also only threw out four of 28 base-stealers (14%). So entering 2012, Cervelli will have to prove No. 1 that he is healthy and can stay healthy and No. 2 that he can cut down on the errant pickoff throws and throw out more base-runners.

Cervelli’s job will be made tougher by the presence of two young bright catching prospects the Yankees have in 21-year-old Jesus Montero and 22-year-old Austin Romine.

Both were brought up to the big club in September. Montero was recalled mainly to provide a big bat off the bench and to DH. Romine was summoned after Cervelli had to be shelved for the season.

Neither young catcher disappointed the Yankees.

Montero provided both power and average by hitting .328 with four home runs and 12 RBIs in only 61 at-bats. Yankee fans marveled at what could be the Yankees’ best pure power-hitting prospect they have groomed since they brought up a young Mickey Mantle in 1951. Montero’s hitting prowess has been compared by scouts to that of Mike Piazza and Manny Ramirez.

His power stroke is also geared to right-center, which take advantage of the shorter dimensions of Yankee Stadium.

The problem is the Yankees are not sold on Montero as a catcher defensively. His 6-foot-4 frame makes it harder for him to block balls in the dirt and he is not as polished with his throws to second base. But the last two American League Gold Glove winners at catcher have been similarly tall catchers in Joe Mauer of the Twins and Matt Wieters of the Orioles.

The fact is the Yankees either have to give up on Montero ever being a catcher and teach him to play first base or they use him as an emergency catcher and DH as they did with Posada last season. The problem is in order to become a better catcher, Montero has to catch. The Yankees have even limited his time behind the plate in the minors.

So this spring training, it will be crucial for Montero to show he can handle the work behind the plate and do all the little things like calling pitches, nailing base-runners and blocking low pitches.

Romine is just the opposite.

Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena both agree that Romine is ready now to be a full-time catcher defensively. He is a polished receiver, who can call a good game, block pitches and he has a very good arm. However, Romine is still a work in progress with the bat.

He hit .286 with six home runs and 47 RBIs at Double-A Trenton. However, hit hit only .198 in 19 at-bats with the Yankees. If you could combine Romine’s defense and Montero’s bat into one catcher, you would likely have an perennial All-Star at the position. But the game is not played that way.

That means the Yankees will have to make a big decision this spring between Cervelli, Montero and Romine.

There is a very good possibility that the Yankees might opt to keep Cervelli another season as a backup in order to get Romine a season of experience at the Triple-A level at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. But that leaves Montero.

Do the Yankees keep Montero as an emergency catcher and DH or do they send him to Triple-A with Romine? How would the two fare splitting the catching duties there? That would be an issue.

Of course, the Yankees might look to the trade market for a starting pitcher and Montero would be a coveted player for any major-league team because of his bat. But Yankee fans might just run general manager Brian Cashman out of town if he does that. Montero has a lot of fans in the Bronx already and they want him to stay in pinstripes.

This is easily the Yankees’ deepest position heading into 2012.

The reason is the Yankees have an even younger catching prospect in Gary Sanchez, who is only 18 and is considered the best defensive catcher in the Yankees’ organization. The front office also expects he will be as good a hitter as Montero minus the awesome power.

Sanchez likely will advance to Double-A and is about two years away from making an impact with the Yankees. But the Yankees, with Romine and Montero in the fold, can afford to wait for him.

PRIORITY NO. 2 - Will the Yankees keep the same starters in 2012?

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