Looking at the Yankees Positionally: Catcher
Part 1: The Catching
Early July Thoughts, by Cary Greene
This past offseason, I wanted Yankees team owner Hal Steinbrenner to pull out all the stops and spend whatever it took to build a prohibitive World Series favorite. Yankees GM Brian Cashman managed to sign Aaron Judge and Carlos Rodon, which seemed to indicate a willingness on Steinbrenner’s part to position the Yankees payroll at the very top of MLB’s CBT Tier-3 Threshold ($293 million). Alas, the plan to surround the star power was to cobble together a supporting cast and it obviously did not work out too well for Hal Steinbrenner and his front office minions.
Cashman signed a few star players, as Hal Steinbrenner agreed to write a couple of very large checks and the rest of Cashman’s plan was for the Yankees to open the season without a viable left fielder, void of a standout closer, lacking a reliable center fielder, depending on a declining third baseman, banking on an injury riddled designated hitter and he even rolled the dice in deciding to go with an unproven shortstop as well.
Perhaps most egregiously though was Cashman’s lack of adherence to the “Yankee Way” of the past - he went with a roster that was decidedly lacking left-handed balance and in doing so, he has forfeited the advantage that the short porch in Yankee Stadium provided to Yankees championship teams of the past.
First let’s break down the Yankees roster positionally, looking at not only where the players that Cashman amassed rank in the League in terms of production, but let’s also consider prior Yankees at each respective position while also acknowledging the performance of some of the free agents that Cashman and Steinbrenner failed to sign.
We’ll start with the Catching. Yankees teams of the past featured stalwarts like Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey and Thurman Munson. Recently, Cashman has made a conscious effort to go with defensive impact at this position instead of focusing on offensive production. There’s no doubt that the catcher is the most important defensive position as they not only handle pitching staffs by calling which pitch sequences to throw, but they’re involved in the lion’s share of the putouts, they block potential wild pitches, frame pitches and they even control an opponent’s running game.
Some teams will pair a fairly good offensive catcher with a strong defensive catcher because let’s face it, getting good offensive production from the catching position is difficult for most teams to accomplish because good offensive catchers rarely even play passably acceptable defense. Most recently, the Yankees won multiple World Series titles with the switch hitting Jorge Posada as the primary signal caller and they surrounded his plus bat with defensively solid catchers like Joe Girardi and John Flaherty.
Organizationally, it’s not like the Yankees haven’t tried to develop some internal catching solutions. They favored a strategy of drafting catching prospects who were known for their bats much more so than their gloves and I actually agree with this strategy.
Prospects like Austin Wells and Josh Breaux come to mind as recent examples. Wells might actually have a strong enough hit-tool to make the big leagues, but whether he’ll remain at catcher does seem very doubtful as he’s not exactly known for his defense.
The Yankees have also tried to draft more defensive minded catching prospects like Antonio Gomez and Anthony Seigler but so far, none of the Draft picks the Yankees executed have translated, so Cashman has had to use other strategies to fortify what is arguably the most important position on the diamond.
Prioritizing defense at the catcher position has helped the Yankees pitching staff for sure, but at what cost? It turns out, the cost is pretty significant as Cashman was unable to swing a trade for the A’s Sean Murphy this past offseason and the failure has been a costly one - so much so that it was the catalyst behind me deciding to write this series of articles.
Leading with the state of the Yankees catching seemed to be a good place to start because I’m not only a fan of good defensive catching, but I’m also an A’s and Pirates fan in addition to loving the Yankees, so it was kind of surprising to me that Cashman didn’t get more involved in the pursuit of Murphy, given that he’s ignored the Yankees catching problems for years.
If the Yankees dynasty that Jorge Posada was a big part of taught Yankees fans anything, it was that having an offensively productive catcher is very advantageous. Yankees fans lived with Posada’s many defensive lapses and baserunning blunders because at the end of the day, he was a valuable switch-hitting catcher with good in-game power.
After Gary Sanchez became a vastly below average offensive player, which was clear by 2020 to most Yankees fans, the Yankees needed to make a move at the position. Instead of spending on a solid free agent to fill the position, Brian Cashman failed to make a move, constrained as usual by Hal Steinbrenner’s budget.
In March of 2022, Cashman finally moved Sanchez to the Twins, acquiring left-handed catching prospect Ben Rortvedt as a throw-in a larger deal that involved Gio Urshela also being packaged by the Yankees, who netted not only Rortvedt, but the aging Josh Donaldson and the stopgap shortstop solution, Isaiah Kiner-Falefla. An extremely good defender, Rortvedt is enjoying a very encouraging season to date in Scranton. Though he began the season injured, Rortvedt now has amassed 90 at-bats and he’s sporting a .311/.431/567 slash line with a .437 wOBA and a 151 wRC+ - which is very encouraging to see.
Just prior to the start of last season, Cashman also fleeced the Rangers by acquiring the soon to become an All-Star defensive stalwart Jose Trevino in exchange for Albert Abreu. Cashman considered the vacancy to be filled as he was lauded for pulling off the trade, but was it really that simple? Was Trevino a sustainable solution and more importantly, were there better options that should have been pursued this past offseason?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is Yes, even though I do believe that the Yankees didn’t match up with the A’s at the time they made Sean Murphy available. Turns out, it was the Braves front office, led by GM A;ex Anthopoulos, who crashed the party by orchestrating a three team deal for Murphy in a surprising deal in which the Braves dealt from a position of strength.
Atlanta moved low-ceiling minor league backstop Manny Pina to the A’s and sent all star receiver William Contreras and lefty pitcher Justin Yeager to the Brewers, while also sending a prospect package consisting of lefty Kyle Muller and righties freddy Tarnok and Royber Salinas to the A’s. The Brewers for their part in the deal, sent utility man Esteury Ruiz to the A’s and received back minor league pitcher Joel Payamps.
Overall, the deal netted the Braves the best catcher available at the time in Murphy while it cost them an All-Star level catcher and two very good pitching prospects who were among the best in their system at the time. Meanwhile, the Brewers landed the said All-Star catcher and gave up very little while the A’s essentially traded away their best trade-chip at the time and got back a pool of minor leaguers, some with nice upside, while they also were able to lower their payroll - which was the goal of the deal from their vantage point.
When the Braves traded for Murphy, baseball bloggers and front office executives alike thought the deal to be a bit questionable, seeing as how the Braves were very well set at Catcher as the offensively skilled Contreras was paired with a good defensive catcher in Travis d’Arnaud at the time and considering that Contreras had two more years of team control than Murphy did. Even I was scratching my head, trying to figure out why the Braves made the rather curious deal.
Clearly, the Braves liked Murphy a lot more than the defensively suspect Murphy and they dealt for him with the intention of extending him and building around him. Perhaps they were putting together a roster capable of winning multiple championships and they figured that the plan all started with a catcher who could be the heart and soul of the dynasty they imagined.
Cashman wasn’t thinking along those lines last offseason, as the Yankees farm system was very depleted and it was especially barren in the pitching department - which very clearly was what the A’s wanted in any deal for the uber valuable Murphy. Besides, Cashman also had other fish to fry as he was primarily focused on reaching a deal with Aaron Judge.
Fast forward to today, presently Sean Murphy ranks as the best catcher in the Majors, with a .982 OPS / .417 wOBA / 161 wRC+ and a 3.7 fWAR season to date. Our own Andy Singer here on SSTN was a leading advocate of wanting the Yankees to make a trade for Murphy and it turns out he was spot on in assessing the possible impact of a catcher like the soon to be 29-year-old Murphy, who bats right-handed.
Alas, the Yankees are getting precious little offensive production from the tandem of Jose Trevino (.581 OPS / .257 wOBA / 61 wRC+ / 0.9 fWAR) and Kyle Higashioka .639 OPS / .277 wOBA / 74 wRC+ / 0.9 fWAR), though the tandem is handling a pitching staff that ranks sixth in MLB with a 111 ERA+.
Cashman and Steinbrenner also notably passed on signing J.T. Rrealmuto during the 2021 offseason and instead the Phillies inked the star receiver to a five-year $115.5 million contract. Realmuto currently ranks fourth offensively among catchers with a .780 OPS / .331 wOBA / 105 wRC+ / 1.2 fWAR stat line this season.
Within the American League East, the Orioles of course now have the former top prospect in baseball handling the catching duties, the soon to be All-Star Adley Rutschman but outside of Toronto's Danny Jansen, the rest of the Division may be offensively below average at the position, they’re not nearly as unproductive as the Yankees are.
Due to Cashman’s inability to provide an answer to the Yankees catching needs, be it through drafting, trading or signing a player the Yankees could build a championship around, the Yankees offense has been adversely affected and what might have been, is now firmly in the rear view mirror. I’d argue that the first step that the Yankees need to take in order to build the next championship, is to secure a strong, offensive catcher and oh by the way, it sure would be neat if he batted left-handed.
Yankees fans will be left to dream on Ben Rortvedt and Austin Wells for now as both of these key prospects may one day soon wind up helping the team. On the field though, the Yankees badly need some offense from the catching position and so if I’m critiquing this year’s offense, I have to grade the Yankees catching as being the single biggest area of need that the team faces. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of problems elsewhere, but a championship roster probably starts positionally behind the plate.
I’ll be reviewing each position similarly in the coming weeks, in the meantime, let's get the discussion started. Is the lack of production at catcher the Yankees biggest problem? Did anyone else besides Andy Singer want Murphy as a top priority and if so, could the Yankees have offered something better than what the A’s ultimately received?