New York Yankees 2014 Five Point Preview: John Flaherty on catching"Flash" believes leadership could be Brian McCann's biggest impact
The Yankees committed more than a half-billion dollars in free agency this winter, but there's perhaps one name that stands out above the rest: catcher Brian McCann.
Imported from the Braves, McCann is a powerful force in the middle of the lineup, one many expect to explode for 30 or more homers this year after averaging 21 a year over eight full seasons in Atlanta. But the biggest effect McCann will hopefully have, according to ex-backstop John Flaherty, is the rapport he develops - both with the pitching staff and in the clubhouse as a whole.
"I'm more excited to see what he brings to this team from a leadership standpoint, and more specifically, what he's going to do for this pitching staff," Flaherty said. "Offensively he's going to put up big numbers, but I'm more excited about the total package and how much better this pitching staff is going to be because of him."
Already this spring, McCann has gone a long way towards earning the trust and respect of his staff; he has eschewed veteran norms by going on long road trips (and not going to Panama) so he could continue to get more work in with his starters, but the biggest indicator has been his willingness to find a way for his staff to succeed no matter what.
"The guys last year, they did a nice job, but when you have an All-Star behind the plate who projects the attitude that all he cares about on game day is what you do as a pitcher and your success, that goes a long way to develop chemistry," said Flaherty.
Last year, the camp competition behind the plate was seemingly wide open, but with McCann aboard, 2014's battle has been a three-way jockey for the backup position. Francisco Cervelli seems to be en route to winning that competition - like he did in 2013 with the "starting" gig - but the Yankees needed four catchers last year, so this "loss" isn't necessarily a permanent one for anyone, especially players with the talent of an Austin Romine or John Ryan Murphy.
"We all know the Yankees have depth at the catching position that they haven't had in a long time, so scouts are watching, and I think (Romine and Murphy) have futures as everyday players, even if it's not in New York," Flaherty said. "But Cervelli is kind of a guy I look at as your perfect backup, so I'd be surprised if he didn't either win that job or get traded to do it somewhere else."
As Flaherty can attest, the backup job is a very important on, especially if that player becomes a "personal" catcher. Joe Girardi has seemingly toyed with that idea in the past, and while it might benefit CC Sabathia or Masahiro Tanaka most, "Flash" is confident that the skipper will go that route with someone, no matter who.
"I appreciate what Joe brings to the table as it relates to understanding the relationship between a pitcher and a catcher and how important it is; he can make a backup player feel like a big part of this club by emphasizing that relationship," Flaherty said, "and to be honest, when you're an everyday catcher and catching four guys in the rotation, you know when you have your day off and can do what you need to do to prepare for it - it's not the worst thing in the world."
If that situation arises, the actual worst thing in the world Cervelli (or whoever is McCann's backup) can do is perceive the assignment as a slight.
"The one thing is that you can't take it personally and have to look at the big picture," Flaherty said. "I remember when I was Randy Johnson's personal catcher, Jorge Posada said from day one that "hey, I want this to work for us as a team." You take the personal part out of it, and you think about what's best for the club."
As for the others, not winning the backup job may be demoralizing for guys like Romine and John Ryan Murphy, but sometimes, as Flaherty explains, what happens in a situation like this is the true test of their development.
"Murphy and Romine are still in my eyes relatively young, and sometimes the toughest adjustment when you're a backup catcher and a young player is to eliminate the negative thought of 'how am I supposed to develop when I'm not playing every day?'," Flaherty posits. "It's not easy. When I was a veteran backup, it was so much easier because that built-in excuse was eliminated, so you just concentrated on the little things you needed to do to be productive."
While the paths of Romine and Murphy may seem blocked, they too are doing some proverbial blocking; the Yankees do have a lot of depth in the system, with Gary Sanchez set to start 2014 at Double-A Trenton, Peter O'Brien likely at Advanced Class-A Tampa, and guys like Luis Torrens and Alvaro Noriega deeper in the system.
There's always a chance one of more players could learn another position to have flexibility, like O'Brien did in learning third base last year, but for now, Flaherty is one who doesn't see that necessarily being someone like Romine or Murphy's sure ticket to the Bronx in 2014.
"I don't think so, but you never know," Flaherty said about the possibility. "There's a lot of question marks in the infield, but the thing about Mark Teixeira is that he's such a hard worker that he wants to be out there every day. Joe Girardi is in a tough spot because he's going to have to find some days to rest him and kind of force him out of the lineup, so if one of the younger guys has a productive year, they could fit in as part of that solution here or there - but don't count on it long-term."
And so it seems that in the end, the biggest impact of McCann's signing is that the rich just get that much richer…at least for now.
"I think the experience Murphy and Romine gained last year was invaluable for them," Flaherty said, "and I think they have more to offer, so going to Triple-A to play every day and showcase themselves might not be a bad thing."