Yanks caught in a backstop dilemma

On the same day the New York Yankees kept their closer, they lost their catcher.

It could have been worse, much worse, of course. They might have lost Mariano Rivera and retained Russell Martin.

But the euphoria -- or is it relief? -- of completing all but the final brushstrokes on a deal to bring Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, back for another year is certainly tempered by the news that they will lose Martin, who was certainly the best catcher on their roster.

And as great as Rivera is, his spot was filled more than admirably by Rafael Soriano for all but one month of last season.

Martin agreed to a two-year deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday. Unless the Yankees do something, and fast, his place next season will be filled by Stew Rominelli, an amalgam of three backup catchers who are unlikely to be as good a substitute as Soriano turned out to be.

As Casey Stengel once said, "You gotta have a catcher, or else you'll have a lot of passed balls."

As of now, the Yankees have three catchers -- Chris Stewart, Martin's backup last season; Francisco Cervelli, relegated to AAA out of spring training and then "promoted" to the backup's backup in September; and Austin Romine, who doesn't even have a complete season of Triple-A ball under his belt -- and the prospect is they will have lots of passed balls in 2013.

Because the fact is, inventory is no substitute for quality. The Yankees have plenty of backstops but not a single, bona fide, everyday starting big-league catcher.

How did this happen?

Well, it started last spring, when Martin and his agent, Matt Colleran, decided to break off talks with the Yankees, who were offering to tear up his existing deal and give him a three-year contract worth about $21 million. Their belief was Martin would have a huge 2012 season and position himself for a big free-agent score this winter.

That looked like the bonehead move of the century when Martin was still struggling to get his batting average above .200 in September.

But obviously, Colleran was aware of what is now painfully obvious to the Yankees and their puzzled fan base -- that this is a particularly good offseason to be a free-agent catcher because there are so few good ones out there.

In fact, Martin was the only one.

Now the Yankees will either have to swallow hard and make a deal with A.J. Pierzynski, who will turn 36 in December and will want as much money as the Yankees were reluctant to give Martin, or with Mike Napoli, a good hitter who is a part-time catcher at best, and not a very good one at that.

Or, they will have to hope to get by with three backup catchers who do not add up to one solid starter.

Truthfully, Martin's decision doesn't quite add up, considering how he often spoke of loving New York City and playing for the New York Yankees. Why then would he accept a $17 million deal with the Pirates without even waiting to see if the Yankees would make a counteroffer?

Did he really miss A.J. Burnett that much?

The suspicion is there was something more there, although I must admit it's no more than speculation on my part. But it always seemed odd that Joe Girardi, a professed fan of Martin's defensive abilities, kept his starting catcher away from his ace, CC Sabathia, for five months of the season.

Catching Sabathia was Stewart's job from April 17 to Sept. 3, a span of 20 starts. Martin always said he didn't mind, but maybe it rankled him more than he let on.

Or maybe Martin, the most articulate and patient of Yankees when it came to dealing with the media, really hated having to act as a sort of team spokesman night after night in an increasingly barren clubhouse.

Whatever his reasons, Martin chose Pittsburgh over the Bronx, and now the Yankees are left holding an empty bag.

The good news is that the Yankees now know that Mariano Rivera will pitch for them in 2013.

The bad news is they suddenly haven't a clue who he will be catching those pitches.