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Brian Cashman knows he has plenty of work to do up the middle

Gary Sanchez #24 of the Yankees throws to

Gary Sanchez #24 of the Yankees throws to first base after Isiah Kiner-Falefa #9 of the Texas Rangers strikes out in the first inning at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, Sep. 21, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Over the years, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has talked about his adherence to what has been a long-held baseball theory, one communicated to him early in his career by legendary scout and front- office executive Gene "Stick" Michael.

The best teams, or at least those that contend regularly for championships, have a "strong spine" up the middle.

The Yankees have historically featured that with the vast majority of their title teams, including the franchise’s last championship club. That 2009 group had Jorge Posada as the primary catcher, a still-close-to-his-prime Derek Jeter at shortstop, the dynamic Robinson Cano at second base and Melky Cabrera and a young Brett Gardner each seeing plenty of time in centerfield.

Cashman, who joined the Yankees as an intern while in college in 1986 and has been their general manager since 1998, spoke at length last week about the work that has to be done on a 2022 roster pockmarked with question marks. Who will be manning those up-the-middle positions is high on that list.

Centerfield is as good a place to start as any.

Aaron Hicks, who struggled to stay healthy before the Yankees gave him a seven-year, $70 million extension in February 2019, also has struggled to stay healthy since. The athletic, switch-hitting Hicks — a unicorn of sorts on the roster as he’s one of the few Yankees who don't fit the swing-big, hit-or-miss-big prototype — had season-ending surgery in May to have a tendon sheath tear in his left wrist repaired. He’s expected back in time for spring training, but the 32-year-old’s extensive injury history will always make him a concern.

The Yankees have a team option on the 38-year-old Gardner, who entered 2021 with the expectation of being a backup but ended up playing in 140 games.

There is no immediate help on the way in the minor leagues at the position.

Catcher?

Gary Sanchez’s most consistent — and enthusiastic — backer in the Yankees’ organization over the years has been Cashman, but that support has quietly waned the last couple of seasons.

"We’ll see," Cashman said of Sanchez being the starter next season. "I know one thing — Gary has worked his tail off. I know at times the results might not be there, but I am proud of the fact you’ve got a guy with a lot of heart, a lot of care, a lot of effort."

The safe way to bet is that Sanchez — who is eligible to become a free agent after the 2022 season — will be behind the plate the majority of next season, with the games started by Gerrit Cole being an exception.

Kyle Higashioka, though popular with the pitching staff — particularly Cole, for whom he serves as personal catcher — because of his defensive prowess, saw his offensive limitations exposed this season when given regular at-bats.

There’s not much on the market in terms of catchers, and though the Yankees have a couple of catching prospects — Austin Wells and Josh Breaux — who have drawn praise from rival scouts, neither is seen as close to big league-ready.

If Sanchez gets the vast majority of reps next season, the Yankees desperately need the kind of offense they got from him in 2017 (33 homers, 90 RBIs) and 2019 (34 homers, 77 RBIs), seasons in which he was an All-Star. But in the past four seasons, he has hit .186, .232, .147 and .204 and has a .201/.299/.444 slash line after compiling a .284/.354/.568 slash line in his first two years.

Gleyber Torres is a two-time All-Star, with his first bid coming in 2018, when he played primarily at second base. His transition to shortstop actually started in the first part of 2019, when he filled in at short while Didi Gregorius recovered from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.

At the urging of the Yankees’ analytics department, the club let Gregorius walk as a free agent after 2019, the thought being that Torres could make a seamless transition full-time to the position he primarily played early in his minor-league career.

But he could not, it seemed to affect his hitting, and the Yankees abandoned the idea in mid-September, putting him back at second. In 19 games as a second baseman, he had a .300/.372/.443 slash line compared to his .259/.331/.366 overall slash line.

Barring an offseason trade — and nothing at this point can be ruled out regarding the roster — Torres will be at second next season, meaning DJ LeMahieu, a three-time Gold Glove winner at the position, won’t be. LeMahieu, who will be coming back from surgery to repair the sports hernia that hobbled him much of the season’s second half, likely will shuttle between third, first and second.

And who will be at shortstop? Cashman didn’t bother masking one of his offseason priorities.

"It didn’t play out the way we’d hoped," he said. "I would say, given that circumstance, without question as I enter ’22, I need to obviously upgrade that position from a defensive standpoint."

Some of the top free agents are shortstops, an impressive group led by Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Marcus Semien. But all will be pricey, and it is not yet clear whether managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner will give the green light to Cashman to lay out the kind of money it would take to land a free agent of that stature.

This early in the offseason — and with the collective bargaining agreement expiring on Dec. 1 — Steinbrenner has yet to tip his hand when it comes to the budget. That ultimately will determine what next season’s roster looks like, up the middle and elsewhere.

New York Sports