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Cervelli leads crop of catching choices

Yankees change formula, opting for defense over offense in backstops

Cervelli leads crop of catching choices play video for Cervelli leads crop of catching choices
NEW YORK -- Francisco Cervelli's eyes flooded with a cocktail of rage and disappointment on the final day of Spring Training last season, flinging a chest protector to the floor near his locker.

After sailing through the exhibition schedule as an uncontested backup to starting catcher Russell Martin, Cervelli had just been optioned to Triple-A, the victim of a surprise trade with the Giants for touted defensive backstop Chris Stewart.

Cervelli vowed to prove that he belonged in the big leagues, and as the Yankees prepare for a 2013 season in which they promise to emphasize defense behind the plate, it appears more and more likely that he will have his chance.

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"He and Stewart are the front-runners for the first and second slots, whoever slots out," general manager Brian Cashman said. "It's just a matter of competition. This is what we have, so we're going to let the guys fight it out."

After years of enjoying -- and perhaps undervaluing -- the offensive contributions of Jorge Posada, then transitioning to Martin over the last two seasons, it may be jarring to see the Yankees changing the formula and going with catch-and-throw choices, players from whom any offense would be considered a bonus.

Yet, unable to match the two-year, $17 million deal Martin scored from the Pirates, the Yankees haven't found other options worth pursuing. Thus, the Bombers continue to proceed as though they will find their answer from the group of Cervelli, Stewart, prospect Austin Romine and non-roster invitee Bobby Wilson.

"It's still going to be an open competition. We'll wait to see if someone opens eyes in Spring Training," manager Joe Girardi said. "I think these guys can get the job done."

Cashman said that he'd line up this crop of catchers among the best in the game in terms of defense, game planning and handling a pitching staff. That syncs with what Girardi has often emphasized, as he did last season when Martin maintained his trust despite a batting average that long hovered under .200.

"When Girardi was catching for us, he was a defense-oriented catcher," Cashman said. "We played him at the time ahead of a young Posada and an older [Jim] Leyritz. They were more offensive-oriented at those times, so it's not like we haven't gone with a defensive-oriented situation.

"We transitioned from Mike Stanley to Girardi while Posada was being cultivated and growing. We had Girardi, we had gone away from Leyritz, who was offensive-oriented. ... The defense is special, in our opinion, no matter what name."

Sure, a late-winter stunner is always possible. Cashman once proclaimed that he was ready to have Bubba Crosby in center field on Opening Day before signing Johnny Damon to a big contract, but the Yankees' fiscal restraint of late suggests that a similar reversal is likely not in the works.

A.J. Pierzynski might have been a fit, but the Yankees seemed content to watch from the sidelines as he inked a $7.5 million deal with the Rangers. The remaining crop of free agents, such as Miguel Olivo, also hasn't enticed.

The Yankees' immediate priority is a right-handed-hitting outfielder -- Washington's Michael Morse could be a fit -- and a designated hitter. They are not actively seeking help behind the plate, where none of the existing choices project to approximate Martin's 21-homer showing of last year.

"They're going to have to find a way to produce runs if those are the two or three guys we go with," Girardi said. "It may not be through the home run. They're going to have to find ways to produce runs other ways."

One interesting note: Martin's runs created per game (RC/27) last season was 4.1, the same as Cervelli has produced over 490 big league at-bats. But last year at Triple-A, Cervelli posted just a .657 OPS after a slow start to his season, as he was admittedly unnerved by his demotion.

Stewart (.217 lifetime average) and Wilson (.208 lifetime average) are also defense-oriented players better suited for backup roles, so it figures that the Yankees will give a close look to Romine, who lost nearly all of 2012 to a back injury.

Romine showed encouraging signs in the Arizona Fall League and has been rated as a plus defender, though his bat was a touch slow during the AFL season. Cashman's best guess is that Romine will begin the season at the Triple-A level, but considering the Yankees' unsettled situation, they're in no position to make a final decision.

"People have asked me, 'What do you think going in? What's the plan?'" Cashman said. "[Triple-A] would be the plan, but Romine has a great opportunity to change that equation. Injuries can change the equation, too."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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