TAMPA, Fla. -- It would be easy for Austin Romine to watch Chris Stewart and think that should be him: a defense-first catcher capable of giving starter Russell Martin a day or two -- or more -- off.
And had it not been for a lower back problem that felled him within days of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp in February, it very well might have been Romine, 23, a top catching prospect who impressed the Yankees, especially defensively, last September after being called up.
But Romine said at the team's minor-league complex in Tampa this past week, "It just wasn't meant to be.''
"I thought it was just stiffness,'' he said of the injury, diagnosed as several bulging discs. "I didn't think it was as severe as it was. Thought it was going to be just a couple of days.''
But it sidelined him much longer than that, and the injury had repercussions that extended beyond Romine, who is expected to begin rehab games in a little more than a week.
Having traded Jesus Montero in the offseason, and with 19-year-old catching prospect Gary Sanchez not close to being big league-ready -- Sanchez was just promoted to high Class A Tampa -- general manager Brian Cashman needed another major league-capable catcher in the system. That brought about Stewart's acquisition from the Giants (for reliever George Kontos) and Francisco Cervelli's demotion to Triple-A.
For Romine, who was going to be given every opportunity to wrest the backup job away from Cervelli, being hurt was difficult to accept at first.
"It was very frustrating to put in all that time, five years getting up there, getting a little taste at the end, showing them I could do it,'' said Romine, the Yankees' second-round draft pick in 2007 and a son of former Red Sox outfielder Kevin Romine.
But he also said there was a benefit -- a lesson learned, and better now while still early in his career.
"I never really paid attention too much to my back [muscles] and kind of relied on being young,'' he said. "I'm still young, but it really let me know what I need to focus on the most. It was really rough missing time; I've never not started the year somewhere. It was rough, but now I know what I need to do in the weight room every day. Every day I'm doing back exercises and core work, a lot of core.''
He smiled. "I've done a lot more sit-ups the past four months than I've done in my entire life,'' he added. "But that's what I need to do.''
And what he wants more than anything is to get another taste of what he experienced last September.
"All I can do is show them that I deserve to be there, that I earned it, be one of the hardest workers out there,'' he said. "I think I deserve a chance or at least a look. But that doesn't mean I think it should be handed to me at all. I'm never like that. I wasn't brought up like that. You have to work, and this is the hardest I've ever worked. Getting back playing is going to feel really good. It's rewarding, seeing all the hard work pay off, that it worked and got me back healthy.''