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Did the Yankees Make a Mistake in Letting Russell Martin Go to the Pirates?

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Did the Yankees Make a Mistake in Letting Russell Martin Go to the Pirates?
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Russell Martin signed a two-year contract with the Pirates.

Welcome to 2012, when the Pittsburgh Pirates outbid the New York Yankees for a free agent. 

Catcher Russell Martin agreed to a two-year, $17 million deal with the Pirates on Thursday (Nov. 29), leaving the Yanks without their starting catcher for the past two seasons. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal was the first to report that Martin signed with Pittsburgh.

Perhaps it's not accurate to say that the Pirates outbid the Yankees for Martin. If general manager Brian Cashman truly wanted Martin back and considered a re-signing one of his offseason priorities, Martin would, at the very least, be waiting for an offer. 

But Cashman obviously didn't think Martin's .211 batting average and .713 OPS were worth more than $8 million per season. Nor was his 42 wild pitches allowed (second-most in MLB) or his 24 percent success rate in throwing out opposing base stealers.

Either Cashman feels they can get far better production for that kind of money or that the team can pay much less for the performance Martin gave them in 2012. 

In past years, the Yankees may well have kept Martin, regardless of the cost. But the 2012 version of the team, under the careful financial management of Cashman and principal owner Hal Steinbrenner, doesn't throw money around the way it has previously. 

Steinbrenner wants to be under the $189 million luxury-tax threshold for 2014, lest the Yankees incur a 50 percent penalty on every dollar they spend over that limit. Paying Martin $8.5 million in each of the next two seasons doesn't quite mesh with that philosophy. 

The Yankees may have known this conclusion was inevitable when Martin turned down a three-year, $20 million proposal from the team in spring training. Cashman says that contract was not going to be offered again after this season.

That would seem to imply that the Yankees have been planning for Martin's departure for several months now. We'll see in the weeks and months to come whether that's actually true or if Cashman was somehow caught off guard by this. 

Can the Yankees replace Russell Martin's offensive numbers?

So where might the Yankees go from here?

Cashman insists the team's starting catcher could be among its current in-house options, which include Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Austin Romine.

Eli Whiteside was designated for assignment to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for Andy Pettitte, but he could conceivably be brought back to compete for a job in spring training. Since the Yankees agreed to a contract with Whiteside just two days before re-signing Pettitte, that seems like a possibility. 

But does anyone—most especially Yankees fans—see a starting catcher among that quartet? The Yankees can't even form a platoon, as all four of those catchers bat right-handed. 

Cervelli once seemed like the guy to take over at catcher once Jorge Posada's career was finished, but he was surprisingly demoted before the regular season began and spent almost all of 2012 with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

A Cervelli-Stewart combo might be sufficient from a defensive standpoint, but offensive production from behind the plate would likely suffer.

Do the Yankees consider that an acceptable loss if the duo does a better job of blocking pitches and throwing out baserunners? Or does this create another spot, along with the two corner outfield positions, where offense will take a dip? 

The Yankees led MLB with 804 runs scored this season, so perhaps Cashman believes the team can afford to lose some offensive production (and save some money) if the starting pitching and defense improve. 

But plenty of other options are available on the free agent and trade markets, so if the Yankees want to upgrade from Martin, the opportunity is certainly there to do so. 

One of the top free-agent hitters is Mike Napoli, but ESPN New York's Andrew Marchand reports that the Yankees aren't likely to pursue him. Scratch another free-agent catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, off the list as well. 

My fellow B/R MLB lead writer Zach Rymer wrote about the possibility of the Yankees exploring a trade for Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer. Mauer's bat would be an ideal addition to the Yankees lineup, providing a high average and OPS to counter the declining numbers of Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson in those categories. 

But the Yankees would have to wipe out their minor-league system to get Mauer, and their lineup is short on youth and athleticism already. 

Could the Yankees pursue a trade for Joe Mauer?

The remaining $138 million on Mauer's contract ($23 million annually through 2018, according to Cot's Contracts) probably isn't a bundle the Yankees want to add to their payroll while attempting to keep costs down over the next two years, either.

Other less expensive options could include Ramon Hernandez, whom the Colorado Rockies shopped around a bit this year. The Rockies might want to keep him around as veteran insurance, however, while Wilin Rosario works to improve his defense.

But Hernandez would provide approximately the same level of offense as Martin did for a far lower cost. He's set to make $3.2 million next year. 

Jesus Flores is set to be non-tendered by the Washington Nationals, who are set at catcher with Kurt Suzuki and Wilson Ramos. But he doesn't look any better than the Yankees' current in-house choices. 

Cashman could also try to be daring and try to nab someone like Ryan Hanigan from the Cincinnati Reds. Devin Mesoraco appears to be the future at that position, but he couldn't supplant Hanigan this year. Perhaps the better move is to try and get Mesoraco

The Yankees could try to get one of the Philadelphia Phillies' young catching prospects as well. The question is whether Sebastian Valle is major-league ready. But he could be expendable after the Phillies got Double-A catcher Tommy Joseph in the Hunter Pence trade with the San Francisco Giants

How Cashman ultimately handles his catching situation could indicate how the Yankees will do business over the next couple of years. If the Yankees go cheap at catcher and in the outfield, it's a sure sign that splashy signings aren't happening in the near future. 

 

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