Austin, Austin Romine, king of the wild frontier. - Jeff Gross
Projections for a rookie catcher provoke a depressing apathy.
Mike Blowers might have been the worst Yankees rookie I've ever seen. By 1989, injuries had greatly diminished Mike Pagliarulo's skills, and that July the Yankees dealt him and journeyman hurler Don Schulze to the Padres for pitchers Walt Terrell and Freddie Toliver. The next month, they traded what was left of command lefty John Candelaria to the Expos for Blowers, who was 24 and coming off of a .267/.327/.447 season at Triple-A. It doesn't sound like much, but offensive standards were a little lighter then, the Yankees hadn't been given any reason to think Randy Velarde could do the job, and at least they were trying someone younger than 35, so three cheers for Blowers, right?
Sometimes you can want the right thing for a team, in this case youth, and still be wrong. Blowers was special in 1990. Playing in 48 games, he hit .188 and fielded .899, a miserable combination that isn't rolled up too often in the modern era. Many players have posted lower batting averages in equal or greater playing time, but few if any have also been able to field .900.
The Yankees ultimately defaulted to Velarde and then, as the season went to hell, Jim Leyritz. What the Yankees hadn't realized is that they had one of the worst righty-on-righty hitters of his time. Blowers averaged .227/.289/.359 against them for his career. He eventually proved to be a useful platoon player, hitting .304/.378/.508 against lefties. That was all he could do; even in 1993, when he hit .280/.357/.475 in 127 games for the Mariners, the numbers were entirely driven by his .357/.424/.669 numbers against southpaws.
Or maybe the worst Yankees rookie I've ever seen was outfielder Oscar Azocar that same year. One of the so-called "Baby Bombers" brought up to try to salvage a lost season, Azocar was a converted pitcher who was so good at making contact he never learned the strike zone. Pitchers were slow to realize this, so he was able to slap-hit about .390 for his first couple of weeks in the big leagues, but in the 50 games remaining in his rookie season he hit only .197/.211/.242, making for an overall line of .248/.257/.355. This is, broadly figured, one of the 15 or so worst seasons by a Yankees outfielder in a season of 200 or more plate appearances, a list which also includes Lou Piniella's uncharacteristic .196/.262/.226 1975 (he suffered from an inner-ear infection that year) and Melky Cabrera's pre-pharmacy .249/.301/.341 of 2008-adjusted for context, Azocar's 1990 and Cabrera's 2008 are about equal in misery, with the former checking in at a 70 OPS+ and the latter at 68.
We might be looking back at Blowers and Azocar again when it comes time for Austin Romine to take his turn behind the dish for the Yankees. Although Brian Cashman has said that Romine will begin the year behind Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Al Stewart, Stewart's Root Beer, Barq's, and on (with Bobby Wilson falling somewhere between the two beverages), given that the offensive potential of the full list adds up to little more than the occasional stern word, it is inevitable that the Yankees will at some point give the 24-year-old backstop a try.
Normally, that would be a good thing -- this youth-averse team needs to get younger in a hurry -- but make whatever excuses you like for Romine, injuries, the lethargy associated with repeating a level, he has yet to show that he will hit with any real authority. It is for this reason that the preseason projections for Romine don't show much-ZiPS has him at .245/.296/.397 and finds his most comparable player to be a kid who barely made it past Double-A before suffering career death after 72 games at Triple-A. This optimistic compared to PECOTA, which sees the best comp as Joe Oliver (a 1000-game major leaguer, at least, though no hitter), but calls for him to hit .237/.281/.366 in his initial go-‘round. A team can lose a close race on performances like these.
The PECOTA projection is comparable to the career rates of another Yankees rookie from the 1989-1990 era, the future manager of the Oakland A's, Bob Geren. As a 27-year-old rookie in '89, Geren surprised by hitting .288/.329/.454 in 65 games. Alas, that was the last hitting he would ever do, and he finished his brief playing career with .233/.283/.349 averages. Geren's profile (75 OPS+) is not far off from that of Oliver (.247/.399/.391 career, 83 OPS+), or that of Jason Hill, the failed prospect ZiPs pegs as the most likely analogue: low batting average, not many walks, and too few home runs to bring anything like balance to the package.
Romine's anemic projections are in roughly the same ballpark as that of of Cervelli (ZiPS: .234/.308/.316, PECOTA: .248/.316/.349) and Stewart (ZiPS: .239/.303/.330, PECOTA: .236/.302/.346), and none of them are far enough away from the second-tier free agent catchers, the Miguel Olivo types, that it would have made signing any of them worthwhile. At the same time, the decision to pass on Russell Martin still rankles given that (A) at 30 he was a low-risk proposition, (B) the team needed a two-year bridge to Gary Sanchez, assuming he's still a catcher when he shows up, and (C) having received $15 million for two years, plus a $2 million signing bonus from the Pirates, Martin didn't get a huge bump over the $7.5 million he received from the Yankees in 2012.
Now, there's no guarantee that Martin would have taken the same deal from the Yankees he got from the Pirates-a Yankees player has every right to expect that the Yankees can top a Pirates offer as a matter of course, and his willing suspension of disbelief might not bend far enough to accept it if they say they can't-but assuming he would have been willing to take something close to that offer, their decision (and again, it might not have been their decision, it might have been Martin's) not to re-sign him would seem to make the leap from austerity to austerinsanity. It's not that Martin was the second coming of Thurman Munson, or Mike Stanley, or Matt Nokes for that matter. It's simply that, as much as anything else, the art of building a pennant-capable team is that of staying as far above replacement level at every position as possible. It seems likely that by the time it's all over eight months from now, the Yankees will have failed that test at catcher.