Monday, June 15, 2009

The Future At Catcher Is Almost Now

When the Yankees re-signed Jorge Posada to a four-year deal prior to the 2008 season, they really had no choice.

The market for catchers was bare -- just ask the Mets -- and the Yankees' best catching prospects still were in the low minors. And though Posada's defense is average at best, few catchers can hit like him. Throw in the fact that the Yankees always won with him, and Brian Cashman had to make a deal.

Posada had the Yankees over a barrel and used that to leverage a long-term deal that would allow him to play through his late 30s.

His value was further enhanced last season when he was injured and missed most of the year, and the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

But Francisco Cervelli's arrival this season is forcing the Yankees into a tough spot.

When Josada and Jose Molina went down with injuries in May, the Yankees appeared to be in a bit of trouble. They summoned Cervelli from Double A Trenton and inserted him into the lineup.

Joe Girardi would say he had no worries about Cervelli's defense, that it already was major-league ready. And Cervelli hasn't disappointed in that regard.

The veterans love the kid and the pitchers rave about throwing to him. In the 15-0 victory over the Mets Sunday, Burnett pitched seven shutout innings and said he didn't shake off Cervelli once.

The issue with Cervelli was his offense. He had been hitting only .190 when he was called up. Even for a weak-hitting catcher, that's not enough.

But since his arrival, all Cervelli has done is produce. In 19 games and 57 at-bats, he is hitting .298 with two doubles, eight runs and six RBI. Those numbers certainly are serviceable for a major league catcher, but Cervelli has also shown an ability to rise to the occasion.

With a runner on third and one out in the second inning Sunday, Mets ace lefthander Johan Santana chose to pitch around left-handed hitting Hideki Matsui to face less accomplished switch-hitters Melky Cabrera and Cervelli.

Cabrera struck out after a good, tough, eight-pitch at-bat, but Cervilli would prove to be even tougher, flaring a single to right-center to drive in Robinson Cano with the Yankees' first run and open the flood-gate to a four-run inning that eventually would become a laugher.

"I was excited," said Cervelli, who went 3-for-5. "When this series started I just wanted to face Santana. I hear from everybody he's a great guy, and he's a great baseball player. He's one of the best and I wanted to face one of the best pitchers in the major leagues."

Already there are calls to keep Cervelli in the lineup ... and that puts the Yankees in a tough spot.

Cervelli belongs in the majors. There is nothing left for him to prove or accomplish in the minors. But he's only 23 and still a kid, really. He still has a lot to learn. He's still going to go have some growing pains. He's going to make some big mistakes.

But the most important thing we still have to see is if he can figure out how to make adjustments once major league pitchers figure him out.

For every minor leaguer jumping to the majors, that is the ultimate test. Shelley Duncan was great his first time through the league. He was never able to adjust once pitchers figured out the hole in his swing.

Cervelli hasn't been in the majors that long. Pitchers still are learning about him and 19 games is hardly enough to develop a book. But if Cervelli can figure out how to counter-adjust quickly, then we can really get excited.

Meanwhile, Posada isn't ready to give up catching. Throughout his rehab and during the offseason he flatly rejected the notion of become in first baseman or full-time designated hitter. "I'm a catcher," he would say.

But clearly age and injuries are forcing him to a point in his career where he's going to have to give up catching. He still has plently left with the bat and can still be a force for the rest of this contract, but that's just not something he's accepted yet.

That's a good thing for the Yankees, but a tough and delicate thing to manage.

Posada is going to finish out this season as the primary catcher and Cervelli will share the backup chores with Molina, once he returns.

The question is what should happen next season? It's going to be a difficult topic to broach with Posada, but one that has to be done. And he's going to have to accept reality.

To Posada' credit, he has taken Cervelli under his wing, as has Molina. So to some extent, Posada must realize that eventually Cervelli -- or someone like him -- is going to replace him behind the plate.

The Yankees and Posada need to work out when and how. The last thing we want to see is Posada pout and ask for a trade because the Yankees mishandle this.

Matsui's contract is up after this season, opening up the DH role, but making Cervelli the No. 1 catcher and Posada the full-time DH for next season would be foolish.

Becoming a legitimate major league catcher is a difficult leap. The Yankees didn't throw Posada into the starting role when he came up in the late 1990s. Instead they let Girardi mentor him and slowly shifted the bulk of the playing time to Posada.

The Yankees should take the same approach with Cervelli.

Posada likely will end up catching around 120 games this season. Next season, it should drop to about 90 games with Cervelli getting the remaining 70 and Jorge playing more DH. Assuming Cervelli remains viable as a hitter, the following season is when Cervelli should become the No. 1 catcher and get 120 games behind the plate with Posada becoming the team's main DH.

That will take pressure off Cervelli and give him time to grow and learn, while soothing Posada's ego and enhancing his reputation as a leader and mentor.

Meanwhile, Molina's contract will be up after the season, and though the Yankees like him, it's not a given he'll be back. Best case scenario would be if he accepts a minor league deal and becomes an insurance policy in case Cervelli falters or Posada gets hurt. If he doesn't the Yankees will have to keep Kevin Cash as the team's third catcher.

Cashman and Girardi will have to walk a tightrope here. I'm hoping they handle it better than did Chien-Ming Wang's botched rehab.

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