11:32 am Nov. 30, 2012
Russell Martin, the Yankees' 2012 catcher who signed Thursday with the Pittsburgh Pirates, wasn't irreplaceable.
But in his absence, the Yankees face a choice between significantly downgrading at the position in 2013 on a team otherwise geared toward taking one last shot at glory, or mortgaging their ability to retain key players in 2014.
Martin was almost the identical player with the Yankees in both 2011 and 2012. He posted a low batting average, solid patience, and plus power for a catcher, while generally earning praise for his defense.
If that seems like little return for the two years, $17 million the Pittsburgh Pirates will pay Martin, that means you are ignoring the scarcity of good catchers available around the league.
On the free agent market, the two catchers who are even vaguely plausible bets to outdo Martin in 2013 production are A.J. Pierzynski and Mike Napoli, both of whom will earn multi-year deals at significantly larger salaries than Martin. As of now, the Yankees say they aren't interested in either one. The remainder of free agent catchers are an unispiring bunch, with names like Rod Barajas and Yorvit Torrealba about as well as the Yankees can do there.
Then there are the internal options. There's Austin Romine, who played just 31 games in the minors last season thanks to a back injury. There's Francisco Cervelli and his .657 O.P.S. at Triple-A last year, at age 26. And there's Gary Sanchez, a terrific prospect, but who is 20 years old and hasn't played above A-ball.
They can make a trade, but it isn't like there are plenty of catchers at or better than Martin's ability that teams will be willing to deal. And the Yankees don't have a surplus of upper-level prospects ready to deal at the moment, with much of the system's depth at roughly the Sanchez level of development.
As I wrote earlier this week, the Yankees set themselves up perfectly for a 2013 title push, thanks to a number of one-year deals with aging players like Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and yesterday, Mariano Rivera.
This made sense for 2014 as well, a time when the Yankees want to get payroll down to $189 million or less. But it isn't as if the Yankees plan to surrender the 2014 season before it begins. So the idea that they can come close to the production they'd get from Martin, who will earn $8.5 million from the Pirates in 2014, for significantly less money is hard to fathom, unless they convince the Seattle Mariners to undo the Jesus Montero-for-Michael Pineda trade.
But as Casey Stengel once said, "You have to have a catcher because if you don't you're likely to have a lot of passed balls."
Right now, the Yankees don't have a catcher. And it's hard to see where they get one as good as Russell Martin.