Martin’s Mission: Catch Fire Or Pack Your Gear

The New York Yankees have reached the halfway mark of the season and they are comfortably in first place in the American League East. This is despite some injuries to some keep players such as Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Michael Pineda, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlain. As we do every year, let’s look at the individual components of the team and issue grades for the first half.  

CATCHER – RUSSELL MARTIN (8 HR, 21 RBIs, .184 BA)

Of all the positions the Yankees have it was thought in 2012 the catching position was one the strongest and had the most depth.

Despite the retirement of Jorge Posada, the Yankees were loaded with catchers in Martin as the starter and Francisco Cervelli as the backup. Rookie sensation Jose Montero was expected to take over as a designated hitter and part-time catcher. In the minors were defensive wizard Austin Romine and two up-and-coming stars in J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez.

The immediate present looked good and the future looked bright. But things have changed drastically.

First, Montero was traded over the winter to the Seattle Mariners for right-handed starter Michael Pineda. The Yankees were not sold that Montero could handle the defensive part of catching and shipped him off for a young pitcher who was dazzling in the first half of the 2011 season.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Pineda’s drop in velocity in the second half of 2011 continued in spring training this season until Pineda finally admitted his right shoulder was not feeling good. Pineda ended up being diagnosed with a partially torn labrum and his surgery has him on track to return to the Yankees sometime in early 2013 at the earliest.

Montero, on the other hand, has hit .249 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs as mostly a DH for the Mariners. He has started only 31 games for Seattle behind the plate.

The Yankees also made a move on the last day of spring training to claim catcher Chris Stewart off waivers from the San Francisco Giants and, because he was out of options, they sent Cervelli to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes-Barre.

The reason was that the Yankees found out during spring training that Romine had issues with a recurring back injury. Romine was unable to play any games in spring training and still has not played a game in the minors this season. The Yankees are hoping Romine will be able to play at some point this season but it unclear when that will be. Back injuries are tricky and the Yankees are taking a cautious approach.

So Cervelli toils in Scranton and he will remain there for a long time.

Meanwhile, the Yankees had high hopes for Martin because, unlike the 2011 season, Martin showed up healthy after he hit .237 with 18 home runs and 65 RBIs. Apart from the low batting average the Yankees were pleased with Martin’s power and production at the bottom of the batting order.

But what really sold the Yankees was Martin’s defense. He was exceptional at blocking pitches in the dirt, calling games and his arm was a deterrent to base-stealers. Manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, both former catchers, raved about his exceptional defense.

That said, the Yankees were not counting on Martin’s complete regression at the plate this season. Martin started out cold, got colder, picked it up for a week and then went cold again.

Martin, 29, is a career .262 hitter and it is odd that he has suddenly lost the ability to even hit his weight at 205 pounds.

For the past two weeks, Martin suffered a recurrence of the lower-back stiffness that shelved him for about 10 days during the 2011 season. That certainly is not going to make it any easier for Martin to regain his batting stroke and it may mean he could miss a few more games in the second half.

Martin has worked with batting coach Kevin Long on moving back off the plate some and shortening his stride. But the work has yet to really bear any fruit. So Martin will trudge on, hoping the light switch flickers on in a hurry to salvage what may be his future with the Yankees.

Martin signed a one-year deal with the Yankees last season coming off a knee injury and two injury-marred seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Martin was extended a second season but he had hoped to sign a long-term deal with the Yankees before the start of the season.

Perhaps the Yankees were lucky they did not accommodate him. It is looking like Martin may get his walking papers at the end of the 2012 season if he does not start picking it up with the bat.

The Yankees still love his defense but they have options with catchers within their system and through the free-agent route who can perhaps hit as well defend. So Martin’s fate is in his own hands the rest of the way. If he wants to remain with the Yankees he is going to have to hit better in the second half.

As defense goes, Martin is very good.

In 56 starts and 62 games, Martin has committed two errors and been charged with four passed balls. He has thrown out 28 percent of the base-runners who have attempted to steal on him, just two notches below his rate from 2011.

Martin also gets high marks for handling this mix of veterans and young pitchers. He has their respect and he calls a good game.

Defense, however, goes only so far in defining what the Yankees need from Martin. The Yankees are just tired of seeing Martin being used as an escape hatch with runners in scoring position.  He is hitting just .149 in those situations this season and he is going to have to pick it up if he wants to remain in pinstripes past 2012.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C-

BACKUP – CHRIS STEWART (0 HRs, 9 RBIs, .270 BA)

Stewart came to the Yankees with a reputation of being a good defensive catcher with a strong arm.

He has somewhat disappointed the Yankees in that regard. In 22 starts and 25 games, Stewart has committed four errors and been charged with five passed balls.

Stewart, 30, only committed seven errors with only two passed balls in 63 games with the Giants last season. This season he has been erratic in his throws to second and he has let way to many balls get by him.

He is still good enough to deter teams from turning games into track meets, however. He has nabbed four base-stealers in 14 attempts for a 29 percent rate. He threw out 39 percent for the Giants last season.

Stewart has hit better with the Yankees this season. He is a .216 hitter in his career.

The reason Stewart has succeeded with the bat is because he is aggressive at swinging at strikes because pitchers are giving him fastballs. Rather than trying to pull them, Stewart is content just to hit the ball hard somewhere and he has been finding holes.

The Yankees really don’t care what Stewart hits but they have to be pleased with what he has contributed in his limited play.

Stewart has also turned into the personal catcher of CC Sabathia, although Girardi refuses to call it that. The fact that Sabathia is 9-3 with a 3.45 ERA and was selected to the 2012 American League All-Star team indicates Stewart is doing something right.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

If fans are thinking Cervelli is coming back, think again. Stewart will remain the backup the rest of the season, barring injury.

Cervelli, 26, is hitting .244 at Scranton with two home runs and 27 RBIs. The pitching staff at Scranton must be giving him fits because he has committed only three errors but has 13 passed balls in 60 starts behind the plate.

He is nabbing base-runners at a 26 percent rate.

The Yankees have said that if anything were to happen to Martin, Cervelli would be recalled and would be inserted into the lineup as the starting catcher. Hopefully, that will not be necessary. But Cervelli likely would be called up on Sept. 1 when the rosters expand to give the Yankees some depth at the position.

Sanchez, 19, is hitting .299 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs in 67 games for Class-A Charleston (SC) in the Carolina League.

Murphy, 21, is hitting .257 with five home runs and 28 RBIs in High Class-A Tampa in the Florida State League.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C

With Martin struggling at the plate, Montero gone, Cervelli in the minors and Romine shelved with a back injury this position suddenly looks a lot weaker than it did at the end of the 2011 season. The only saving grace appears that Sanchez appears to be for real as the catcher of the future. Unless Martin turns it around at the plate he is going to be let go after this season. So he certainly has the incentive to get better. Defensively, the Yankees are in good hands with Martin and Stewart and they have a legitimate major-league catcher in Cervelli in the wings. But Yankee fans can be forgiven for missing the offense Posada provided in his prime. The team is missing that now.

 

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