Around the Horn: Catchers

Around the Horn: Catchers

With the start of Spring Training just weeks away, the time has come to start sizing up the 2010 Yankees, piece by piece. MLB.com will go around the horn and break down each area of the Yankees, beginning with the catching position.

NEW YORK -- About three months after they gathered to celebrate a championship, the Yankees' pitchers will soon be back under the sunny skies at Spring Training. And there to work with them, as usual, will be Jorge Posada.

The 38-year-old veteran remains one of the most reliable pieces of the dynasty-era Bombers, gearing up to get back behind the plate and handle the staff. There's no doubt of what his assignment will be, entering in search of what would be his sixth World Series ring.

"We come to Spring Training thinking that we have to be in the playoffs," Posada said during the title run. "The season really doesn't end for us. It just keeps going when we come to October. We just hope that we can continue and play a little longer."

While Posada acknowledged earlier this offseason that he probably won't approach his defensive workload of 2007, when he caught 138 games, the Yankees are counting on the veteran to be behind the dish for 115 to 120 starts, while also lending a hand as the designated hitter.

Heading into what will be the third season of a four-year, $52.4 million deal signed after his outstanding 2007 campaign, Posada proved in '09 that he still had plenty to offer after coming back strong from right shoulder surgery.

At the plate, Posada hit .285 with 22 home runs -- including the first at new Yankee Stadium on April 16 -- and 81 RBIs in 111 games for New York, his 15th consecutive season playing in pinstripes.

Among big league catchers, Posada ranked fourth in homers, fifth in RBIs and tied for seventh with 25 doubles. Those numbers could have improved had he not missed 22 games with a right hamstring strain in May, plus a finger injury that forced him to pad his glove hand behind the plate.

Indeed, his contributions were historic: according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other catcher older than Posada to catch more than 88 games for the Yankees was Deacon McGuire, who caught 97 games in 1904 at the age of 40.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. There were several media controversies about Posada's game calling in 2009, including clashes with A.J. Burnett that eventually saw manager Joe Girardi lean on Jose Molina to receive New York's No. 2 starter during the playoffs.

"When a pitcher and a catcher get in a rhythm, you hate to break it up," Girardi said then, explaining the decision. "That's kind of the feeling we have going now. Jorge is our No. 1 catcher. But in this situation, we just are going to choose to catch Molina."

While Posada also struggled to get on the same page with Joba Chamberlain during the season, the catcher's productive switch-hitting bat was the true value to the Yankees. But the team was pleased to at least see that Posada's health had improved from the frustrating days of 2008.

"I was sitting around at home and not really enjoying myself too much [in 2008]," Posada said. "You know, working hard to get back, doing training, so it's a little different now. I am excited. I am excited that I got a chance, and my shoulder was again feeling like it's supposed to. It took a lot to be here."

Early that season, Posada watched runners go wild on the bases and eventually tried to get through the season as the designated hitter before agreeing to shoulder surgery in July. Posada caught 22.3 percent of potential basestealers in 2009, compared with just 8.1 percent in '08, but said the key is still on the pitcher to execute.

"We have to get the hitter out," Posada said. "That's the priority. If you're going to think about the runner, the pitcher is going to get [hurt]. You have to get the hitter, and that's the most important thing. For me, I just pay attention and try to make a good throw whenever they go. I try to keep it simple, to tell you the truth. I can't really be thinking about the running game."

Backing up Posada will likely be rookie Francisco Cervelli, who earned rave reviews from the Yankees' pitching staff and coaches after being summoned from Double-A Trenton as a 23-year-old.

Cervelli was hardly on the cusp of a callup, hitting just .190 in 16 Eastern League games, but the trip to the Bronx was necessary when the Yankees lost both Posada and Molina to injury.

Cervelli answered, serving two stints with the Yankees and hitting .298 with a home run and 11 RBIs in 42 games (25 starts), gunning down 13 of 21 potential basestealers.

Perhaps most impressively, Cervelli showed no hesitation to challenge veterans such as CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte on the bench between innings, including calling Sabathia's shutout of the Orioles on May 8 -- a game best remembered for Alex Rodriguez's first swing of the season, dispatching a three-run homer over the left-field wall.

"I like what I see, just when you talk to him," Pettitte said in May. "The look in his eyes is very confident. If he's confident in what he's doing, no matter how much experience I have out there or any of these other guys, it helps you. It's what you want to do. I'll ask his advice."

With Cervelli's defensive abilities and knack for clutch hitting -- including a walk-off single on Sept. 16 against the Blue Jays -- the Yankees have said that they are comfortable turning the page without Molina, who is likely to leave as a free agent after spending the past 2 1/2 years in New York.

Beyond that tandem, the Yankees are closely watching the progress of top prospect Jesus Montero, who hit .337 with 17 home runs and 70 RBIs for Class A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2009, drawing trade interest from clubs this offseason, but ultimately remaining in the organization.

With Austin Romine (.276 BA, 13 homers, 72 RBIs at Tampa) also a highly regarded catching prospect in the chain, New York will also bring in the usual gang of reinforcements for Spring Training to handle the heavy demand of bullpen sessions.

Among the non-roster invitees the Yankees will be looking at will be 33-year-old Mike Rivera, a .244 hitter in 181 Major League games who spent parts of the past four seasons with the Brewers and has also seen big league time with the Tigers and Padres.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.