Throughout the course of the off-season, I’ll share my vision for the 2019 Yankees. This article is the sixth in this series. You can see the other articles here:
Today we will look at the Yankees catchers.
I’m going to be bluntly honest here, bluntly honest. I know what I am supposed to say, and I actually agree with the conventional wisdom here, but I will also say that looking at this objectively, both the proponents of Gary Sanchez and his detractors are both just guessing regarding his future. I don’t believe anyone really knows what to expect from Gary Sanchez in 2019... it’s a complete and total guessing game.
Is Gary Sanchez the amazing kid who hit 20 homers in just 229 at bats in 2016?
Is Gary Sanchez the excellent hitter who hit 33 home runs in 122 games in 2017?
Or is Gary Sanchez the disappointing guy who batted just .186 over 89 games amid questions about his hustle and focus in 2018?
And, no matter what any “expert” says, no one really knows which Gary Sanchez the Yankees have right now. Anything said about his 2019 is mere speculation.
Will 2019 be a season where Gary Sanchez continues to regress or will 2019 be the season that Sanchez becomes the solid bat in the middle of the lineup that is a complete game changer for the Yankees?
If Gary Sanchez is great, the Yankees will be a team that dominates in 2019. He can be (and should be) a difference maker. Absolutely. But, if Gary Sanchez resembles the player that he was in 2018, and if he bats in the middle of the order and performs so poorly, the Yankees could be in real trouble.
The conventional wisdom is that Gary Sanchez has to go into the 2019 season as the starting catcher. Sanchez will be playing in his age-26 season. He should be hitting his prime. Sanchez has demonstrated that he can be an outstanding power hitter that could make him elite as a catcher. Making Gary Sanchez the starting catcher is a no-brainer. The talent is there. The past results are there. He’s entering his prime. Gary Sanchez has to be the Yankees’ starting catcher. The conventional wisdom is correct…but, more than any player, the conventional wisdom is just taking a leap of faith here. Again, I also agree with this line of thinking. Gary Sanchez is, and has to be, the Yankees’ starting catcher in 2019. Period.
Baseball Reference calculates the 162 game average season for Gary Sanchez season (based on his career to date) as .252/.333/.515 with 43 homers and 113 runs batted in. Holy cow! And note, they come up with those numbers after factoring in Sanchez’s horrific 2018 season. If that is the catcher the Yankees have in 2019, boy are they in great shape. If that’s the catcher the Yankees have in 2019, they most likely have the American League Most Valuable Player. That’s how good, based upon the numbers he has accumulated to date, Gary Sanchez can be. He is an absolute difference maker.
It is every Yankees fans’ hope that that is the Gary Sanchez that shows up in 2019. If it is…WOW!
But, when one is a difference maker, it can go both ways. While everyone hopes that Gary Sanchez becomes the great player he was destined to be, there is now a lot of doubt that he can become that player. Saying this does not make one a Gary Sanchez hater. It’s merely speaking the truth.
If the 2019 version of Gary Sanchez is the one that allows an abundance of passed balls and wild pitches… If the 2019 Gary Sanchez is the one that (fairly or not) seems like a guy that doesn’t focus on the game or doesn’t hustle… And if the 2019 version of Gary Sanchez is the one that fails to hit for average or power… The Yankees are in trouble. Big trouble. Gary Sanchez never seemed to be in top physical shape in 2018. The Yankees have to hope that he is preparing now to be the superstar that he can be next year. A player’s season can be determined by the off-season that precedes it. The Yankees must hope that Sanchez is preparing mentally and physically for the 2019 season. He is that important to this team.
Because they have to give Gary Sanchez the great benefit of the doubt, because a team can’t give up on a 26-year-old catcher with Sanchez’s ability and track record, and because conventional wisdom is correctly stating that he has to be the catcher, if Gary Sanchez’s 2019 season resembles his 2018 season, the Yankees are in real trouble. This is because if Gary Sanchez isn’t great, the Yankees have nowhere to turn. It’s Gary or bust in 2019. If Gary is a bust, there is a huge likelihood that 2019 will also be a bust for the Yankees. Gary Sanchez means that much to the team. He just might be the biggest difference maker on the whole team.
It also became clear in 2018 that Austin Romine is nothing more than an adequate back-up catcher. He plays hard, he’s got spunk, but he’s also an average defensive player with an average arm who is a below-average hitter. If the Yankees have to rely on Austin Romine in any capacity, except as a reserve player, the Yankees will be in trouble. Romine is very likable, but he just is what he is - a backup catcher.
Kyle Higashioka is a nice third string catcher. His short home run escapade last summer was a highlight of the season. But he is not a starting catcher and if becomes the back-up on anything resembling a regular basis, again, that does not portend well for the Yankees.
Again, all of this points to the tremendous weight being put on Gary Sanchez. With the team constructed the way it is right now, they have no other choice but to put their faith and hopes on Gary Sanchez. For that reason, if were the GM, I’d work diligently to hedge my bets on Sanchez, just in case, because there is enough of a concern that his future isn’t as bright as it may have looked a season ago, by acquiring an able back-up who can start, if necessary. The Yankees need a “break glass in an emergency” player who is superior to Austin Romine as Gary Sanchez insurance. If I were the GM, I’d make sure that the Yankees have a solid plus ballplayer behind the plate on the days that Gary Sanchez doesn’t catch and to have on hold just in case that Sanchez has a repeat of 2018. If Sanchez is faltering in the first half of the season, if he isn’t performing even reasonably close to his projections by June, the Yankees need to be able to turn to their back-up catcher knowing that they have a quality player who adds to the team. They’ll know that this player isn’t what they hoped Sanchez could have been, but they’ll also know that the guy they turn to is a solid starter and is one that still gives them the best chance to win on a day to day basis.
In short, the best way to handle the catching position in 2019 is to put most of their eggs into the Sanchez basket for the first two to three months of the season and then have a solid fall-back position to go to just in case Sanchez’s brilliance had faded or has completely gone away.
The best thing about my plan is that I believe the Yankees can accomplish it for nothing more than money. The free agent class this winter provides some very real options. Just for the ease of this article, I’ll base much of the following on Baseball Reference WAR.
We’ll start with the obvious point of comparison, Austin Romine. For Romine’s career, he has a lifetime WAR of -0.6. For Romine, the only season of his career where he had a positive WAR was 2018 when he clocked in with an overall WAR of 1.4. That is my point, the Yankees MUST do better.
Brian McCann, who will be 35 next year, fits the Yankees nicely in the capacity of becoming Sanchez’s back-up. He’s never had a negative WAR in any season in his career. He is also a plus clubhouse presence. McCann is now used to being a back-up. He still has left-handed pop which would be a nice compliment to Sanchez, he has the experience of playing in New York, and also in being on a World Series winning team (the 2016 Astros). McCann can also fake it at first base giving the Yankees a little back-up insurance there as well. It would make a lot of sense to bring McCann back as Sanchez’s caddy. The only negative here is that Brian McCann might still fashion himself as a starter as he just declined a 15 million dollar option. (I hope he doesn’t think he’s going to get a bigger payday than that!) (NOTE 11/27/18 - It was the Astros that declined McCann’s option - not the other way around. McCann just signed with the Atlanta Braves for just $2 million dollars for the 2019 season. ) If the Yankees can offer McCann two years at $10 million or $11 million each, does that get the job done? (Note 11/27/18 - I over-valued McCann’s worth. I have to feel that the Yankees could have enticed him to come to New York. He would have been a great addition to the 2019 team - at a very affordable price. In fact, MLB Trade Rumors projects Austin Romine’s salary to be just that - $2 million. https://www.mlbtraderumors.com/2018/10/mlb-arbitration-salaries-2019.html)
If Brian McCann proves to be too expensive, there are other options who all out-WAR’d Romine (and Sanchez) in 2018. These are:
Robinson Chirinos (will be 35 in 2019). A right-handed batter, in five big league seasons, he’s also never put up a negative WAR. He has good power (17 homers in 2017, 18 homers in 2018) and has served as a quality back-up. He also earned only $2,250,000 last year. He might be able to be to be acquired rather inexpensively.
Kurt Suzuki another righty batter (who will be 35 in 2019) has put up a positive WAR in each of the last six years. In 2017, his WAR was 2.8. Last season it was 2.1. He has also served as a back-up and still has good power (19 homers in 2017, 12 homers in 2018). He’s a solid player who earned only $3,500,000 in 2018.
Wilson Ramos will be entering his 10th season. He’s never put up a negative WAR. His WAR in 2018 was 2.7. His salary in 2018 was $8,500,000. He is younger, he’s only 31 and won’t turn 32 until August and probably considers himself a starter, but if he can be had for just cash, he’d be a huge upgrade who would allow the Yankees to rest Sanchez on occasion without missing much of a beat. Like the others, he’d make great Sanchez insurance, but unlike the other players listed, he could also be a longer term solution in the event that Gary Sanchez falters in 2019.
Yasmani Grandal (only 30 years old) is also a free agent. As a switch hitting catcher, right in his prime, he’ll be looking to score big as a free agent. The fact that he can play a little first base makes acquiring him very intriguing, but, getting Grandal is more likely in a computer game or in Strat-o-Matic than real life. It would be great, but it’s not happening.
In short, I’d have to assume that one of Wilson Ramos, Kurt Suzuki, Robinson Chirinos, or Brian McCann will be available as a reasonably priced free agent. It might not be too hard to convince an aging catcher to come to the Yankees on a sweet two-year deal with the opportunity to play for a team that will contend for multiple championships. This is the trump card the Yankees have - the lure of championships and glory. All it takes is money. They have that too. This is the advantage the Yankees have over most of baseball. Ownership is being foolish if they don’t leverage the advantage they have to truly build a winning team. It’s time for the Yankees to go all-in. Totally.
As part of the plan to make 2019 successful, the Yankees have to trust in Gary Sanchez, but they need to hedge their bets just a little by investing in a high quality back-up…just in case. I would be thrilled with any of these players, but for the purpose of this exercise, I am hoping the most for Brian McCann to be the player the Yankees acquire, at two years for $22 million dollars.
I believe teaming Gary Sanchez with Brian McCann will benefit Gary Sanchez as he’ll learn from an excellent player. McCann will also be a great insurance policy who relegates Austin Romine to the third-string role. None of this is personal, it can’t be. For the Yankees to win in 2019, they have to build the best team they can. This is one way to keep the catching position as a strength even if Gary Sanchez isn’t the Gary Sanchez we all hope he will be.
My 2019 Yankees as reported in this series thus far:
MGR - Aaron Boone
C - Gary Sanchez/Brian McCann
2B - Scooter Gennett
SS - Gleyber Torres
3B - Miguel Andujar
LF - Bryce Harper