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March 7, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Is Jesus (Montero) Coming?
It's not often that injuries to a backup catcher are met with cheers heralding the imminent arrival of even a Jesus of less than divine provenance, but such was the case on Friday when the Yankees announced that Francisco Cervelli had suffered a fracture after fouling a ball off his left foot two days earlier. Cervelli will be in a walking boot for at least four weeks, and could miss six to eight weeks in all, obviously ruling him out for Opening Day. His absence opens the door for Jesus Montero, who ranked third on Kevin Goldstein's recent Top 101 Prospects list, to break camp with the team. What already looked to be a compelling season-long position battle at catcher just got even more interesting.
For starters, the Yankees have already decided that after 13 years of calling Jorge Posada their regular catcher, a changing of the guard is in order. Under most circumstances, a five-time All-Star and potential Hall of Famer coming off a .248/.357/.454 season with 18 homers and a top 10-worthy .286 True Average would be accorded the courtesy of continued incumbency, but Posada is 39 and increasingly injury-prone. His defense, never his strongest suit, has fallen off in recent years; last year, he gunned down a career-low 15 percent of opposing base thieves, was second in the league in passed balls despite starting just 78 games, and rated a career-worst 11 runs below average according to FRAA. His reaction time has slowed, and in the wake of concussion-like symptoms from a foul ball off his noggin, the Yankees have been increasingly concerned about his exposure to further brain injuries. They're adamant that he's a full-time designated hitter now, and have no plans to let him catch a spring training game, limiting him to catching bullpen sessions to keep him ready in case of emergency. Though he resisted the move at first, Posada has come around to the idea of shedding the tools of ignorance.
Cervelli carved out a roster niche when Posada went on the disabled list last May for a similar fracture. He wound up starting 80 games and hit a slappy but hardly subpar .271/.359/.335, for a .261 TAv. He finished with a positive FRAA (+2) and allowed just two passed balls, but he was no great shakes behind the plate by many other measures, tying for the league's highest error total (13), nabbing just 14 percent of attempted thieveries, and ranking last in Beyond the Box Score's catcher defense ratings, which take into account both of those categories as well as wild pitches, where the net effect is the same as a passed ball but the responsibility ultimately a subjective call made by the official scorer. Cervelli tied for last place with Jeff Mathis and Ryan Doumit at 9.4 runs below average. Despite the shrieks of frustration and horror he elicits from Yankee fans for his lapses behind the plate, there's no joy to be had over his injury. This is, in fact, the third spring injury Cervelli has sustained, following a broken wrist in 2008 and a beaning-induced concussion in 2010, one that prompted him to switch to the oversized "Great Gazoo" helmet, no matter how weird it looks. This is a man willing to look ridiculous to remain among the International Brotherhood of Backup Catchers.
Waiting in the wings is Montero, an oversized 21-year-old überprospect whose bat has drawn comparisons to heavy hitters like Frank Thomas and Miguel Cabrera, but whose work behind the plate elicits opinions running the gamut from unfinished to unplayable. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he's a behemoth whom Goldstein and ESPN analyst Keith Law both see as inhibited by his size, with a slow release time to go along with poor receiving skills. With first baseman Mark Teixeira signed until the end of time, the Yanks have no easy position shift to offer him.
Nonetheless, Montero has his believers within the Yankee organization. Last summer, the Yankees’ Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations, Mark Newman, lauded the progress of his receiving and game-calling, and this spring both general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi, veteran of 15 years behind the plate in the majors, have praised his defensive efforts as well. "We have no doubt he's going to be a catcher… I guarantee the same scouts who said 'No way' are now saying 'Maybe' or 'He will," said the GM. With Girardi, bench coach Tony Peña (18 years in the majors), and catching instructor Butch Wynegar (13 years), the Yankees have a college of ex-catchers to monitor Montero's progress.
The Yankees didn't enter spring training planning to break north with Montero. In fact, Cashman went out of his way to throw up a roadblock by signing Russell Martin in December once he was non-tendered by the Dodgers. A 28-year-old two-time All-Star, Martin once ranked among the brightest young stars in the National League, an energetic two-way backstop with the potential to become the face of the Dodgers’ franchise amid a bumper crop of homegrown regulars. Alas, his career has been on a downward trajectory over the past three seasons:
Overwork at the hands of Dodger skippers Grady Little and Joe Torre, ex-catchers who should have known better, may have played a part in Martin's decline. From 2007 through 2009, he caught more innings than any other major-league catcher, edging Jason Kendall (3,693 to 3,636), and like Kendall, he has become as punchless as a newborn kitten. As if that weren't bad enough, Torre occasionally played Martin at third base, his original position before converting in 2003, during what should have been his days off.
More unsettlingly, Martin admitted in the spring of 2009 that post-game drinking was affecting his game, adding to the forces wearing him down over the course of the season. He said that amid what has literally become an annual rite of spring, the Russell Martin Best Shape of My Life declaration, in which the catcher declares that his latest workout regimen—be it yoga, sledgehammer-swinging, or mixed martial arts—will solve the problems that sapped his production last year, usually because his previous off-season regimen was all wrong. Amid his continued accountability issues, he has become the Unreliable Narrator of his own slide into mediocrity.
Martin's 2010 season ended in August via a pelvic fracture, and concerns about the pace of his healing were one reason the Dodgers let him go. Undeterred by his medical file, Cashman signed Martin to a one-year deal worth $4 million plus incentives, and declared him the everyday catcher, health permitting; in practically the same breath, he reported that Martin would need surgery to repair a small meniscus tear in his right knee, a typical "scrape and tape." Shortly after pitchers and catchers reported, it was also discovered that during the offseason he'd suffered an MCL strain of unknown severity. With his timetable slightly set back, Martin didn't see his first Grapefruit League action behind the plate until this past Friday, hours after Cervelli's injury was announced.
Given his injuries and the pattern of his career, it's not too difficult to foresee Martin carrying something less than the load he was initially expected to carry, particularly if he's unable to arrest his offensive slide. Even as his power has waned, Martin has been able to maintain a high enough on-base percentage to keep him in the vicinity of the league average .260 TAv, but much of that owes to being pitched around while batting seventh or eighth in an NL lineup. Last year he drew 22 walks in 207 plate appearances while batting first, second, third, or sixth; only one of those was intentional. He drew 25 walks in 177 PA while batting seventh or eighth, with six of those intentional, propping up his OBP. In a stacked Yankee lineup forecast to lead the majors in scoring, he's not going to have that benefit.
As tough as it is to envision Martin catching the bulk of the games, it's tougher to imagine that the Yankees would simply keep Montero in the majors as a backup playing a couple times pr week rather than getting regular at-bats at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre while continuing to hone his defensive skills. With Cervelli's absence creating a vacancy on the Opening Day roster, the alternatives—getting Posada back into game shape while having spent the winter convincing him that DHing was in his best interests, or breaking camp with Gustavo "No Relation" Molina and his career .235/.295/.348 line in the minors—don't seem realistic, and it's not as though trading for another catcher does either.
Thus, one has to conclude that it's all on the table for Montero if he continues to impress the brass. Not that he'll be anointed the starter by Opening Day, but if he's staying, he's playing some significant portion of the time, and no $4 million fly-by-night rental is going to stand (squat?) in his way for long. True, the Yankees could break camp with Montero, give him a taste of the majors, and then pack him off to finishing school in Scranton once Cervelli heals, but if he's hitting up to his capability and not embarrassing himself behind the plate, that's going to be a tough sell.
Fifteen springs ago in Tampa, Tony Fernandez fractured his elbow diving for a ball in an exhibition game, costing him the season but opening the door for another highly-touted prospect. The Yankees headed north with 21-year-old Derek Jeter as their starting shortstop and never looked back. It's too early to daydream about Montero paving his own road toward Cooperstown, but the day when he can start that journey appears a whole lot closer.