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Posada key for Yanks, but there's a catch

Carlton Fisk started 112 games behind the plate at the tender age of 42.

So, Jorge Posada, what do you think? Ready to catch until 2014?

"We'll see," the Yankees catcher said with a smile, when I asked him about Fisk's feat on Sunday. "I don't know. That's too far ahead."

Fair enough. Even those of us in the prognostication business should keep our thoughts fixed on the season at hand.

And that's fine, actually, because Posada's well-being has everything to do with whether the Yankees will repeat as World Series champions.

Consider the following:

1. Posada has caught at least 100 games in each year since 1999 -- with one exception. That would be the 2008 season, also known as the lone occasion the Yankees failed to reach the playoffs during that span.

2. Posada turns 39 in August.

If Posada catches another 100 games this year, the Yankees will have an outstanding chance to become the first repeat champions since, uh, the Yankees.

If he doesn't, the Yankees' postseason hopes will be in peril. And A-Rod's current rogue doctor controversy will seem trivial by comparison.

At this time of year, many teams wonder if their young players are ready to assume everyday roles. The Yankees have the opposite problem: They have to worry about how many more good seasons they will get from expensive veterans like Posada, Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and even Alex Rodriguez.

Rivera would be the most difficult pitcher for the Yankees to replace in-season. Posada holds the same distinction among position players -- yes, even ahead of the infield's left side. The Yankees turned out OK last year even though Cody Ransom and Ramiro Pena shared duty at third base until May 8.

Last season marked Posada's return to action following major surgery on his throwing shoulder. (Posada acknowledged that the uncertainty surrounding his recovery at this time last year was "scary.") Jose Molina, a defensive expert, was the team's insurance policy against future injury to their star catcher. But Molina isn't around anymore, having signed with the division rival Blue Jays.

Posada has spent time on the disabled list in each of the past two seasons -- in 2008 because of the shoulder surgery, last year due to a strained hamstring. If that happens again, manager Joe Girardi's next internal option would be Francisco Cervelli or Mike Rivera.

Both are fine backups. Neither would approximate Posada.

So, the Yankees will be cautious. Girardi told reporters recently that he hopes Posada will catch between 100 and 120 games this season. Posada said he doesn't have a number in mind, but it's certain that his at-bats -- at both catcher and designated hitter -- will be measured carefully.

Yankees legend Yogi Berra, who remembers playing 151 out of 154 games in one season as a young catcher, was at Steinbrenner Field on Sunday. So, I asked him what he thought about Posada's workload for the coming year.

"If he does 100, he's doing good," Yogi said. "See what happens. He's a good DH, too."

That seems to be a good benchmark. Last year, according to research by the Yankees media relations department, Posada became the first catcher in franchise history to catch 100 games during the season in which he turned 38.

Benito Santiago was the last player to do so anywhere in the majors, with the Giants in 2003.

And he played only 55 more games in the big leagues.

In that case, you may want to remember this: Posada is due $26.2 million through next year.

"You have to keep him fresh," general manager Brian Cashman said. "There's no doubt about it. Our manager will do just that. Hopefully he can stay healthy all year, where he doesn't get an automatic timeout because of injury.

"No question: Girardi will definitely have to rest him here and there because of his age. People don't catch at this level like he's doing."

Or do they?

Bob Boone, the former All-Star catcher, played in the majors until he was 42. He won four Gold Gloves in a row -- at 38, 39, 40 and 41.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Boone said that as long as Posada puts in the requisite off-season and in-season workout time -- and avoids injury -- he might find that the night-by-night rigors aren't much more difficult than they were several years ago.

As Boone explained it, playing became easier as he grew older, but training and preparing didn't.

"Hitting's the last thing that goes," said Boone, now an assistant general manager with the Washington Nationals. "Running goes first. But that doesn't matter as a catcher, because you couldn't run in the first place.

"I had my best year when I was 41. A lot of that is knowledge from a hitting standpoint and catching standpoint. Just look around. Catching is the hardest position to find, so guys are playing longer and longer.

"It's truly a defensive position, and the hitting becomes a plus. It's how you relate to the pitching staff and calling a game. And that's something that usually improves with more experience."

With Posada, though, offense is the greater appeal. Not every Yankees pitcher (hello, A.J. Burnett) has loved throwing to him, but Posada works well enough with most of them to remain effective in the job. Left-hander Andy Pettitte, his longtime friend and teammate, said Sunday: "I just assume he's going to be back there whenever I'm pitching."

Still, Pettitte acknowledged: "You realize -- and I think he realizes -- that each year (his workload) is going to get less and less. You can't help it. He's getting older. It's going to catch up with you eventually. But as long as they continue to give him days off and take care of him, like Joe does, he'll continue to feel strong."

The notion of Posada playing at 40 isn't as far-fetched as you might think. Cashman described his work ethic as "off the charts." Mike Lieberthal, the former big league catcher, believes Posada can do it as long as he avoids injuries, because his switch-hitting bat will enable him to stay in the lineup.

Jim Sundberg, the former catcher and current Texas Rangers executive, was similarly optimistic. "The way he swings at a pitch is conducive to playing longer," Sundberg said. "He's a hand-type hitter. I was an arm hitter. It's a little more difficult to be an arm hitter. He's a 'hands' guy. That's an advantage."

So, maybe Posada is capable of ending his career as Fisk and Boone did. But right now, the Yankees would probably settle for a steady, healthy 2010 season. Their title defense depends on it.