If it’s late September in the Bronx, it can only mean one thing:
Speculation about Gary Sanchez and where the polarizing catcher fits in the Yankees’ plans.
For the second straight season, Sanchez lost his hold on being the unquestioned No. 1 catcher, with Aaron Boone saying over the weekend when it comes to determining who starts between Sanchez and Kyle Higashioka: "It’ll be a day-to-day situation. I’ll try to play the guy that gives us the best chance to win that night…I feel good with either one."
If any of that sounds familiar, it should.
It was last Sept. 24 when Boone explained having Higashioka, already firmly established as Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher – a role he’s continued in this season – catch Jordan Montgomery rather than Sanchez in a key late-season game.
"It’s hard to predict," Boone said then. "There’s nothing committed to right now, but I expect both guys to play a role and an important part of us being a champion."
Higashioka catching the Yankees’ first playoff game in 2020 – Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card round in Cleveland – and the majority of games after that.
The Yankees ended up playing seven playoff games, with Higashioka starting five of them, including the deciding fifth game – a 2-1 loss to the Rays – in the Division Series.
The wild-card round is back to a one-game affair this season and,should the Yankees qualify for the game Oct. 5, expect Higashioka behind the plate as it is a virtual lock Cole will be on the mound.
Boone has avoided at all costs, and still does, calling Higashioka Cole’s personal catcher, despite what has been obvious the past two seasons.
As for the games not started by Cole, as Boone indicated over the weekend, the club will make that decision day-to-day. Sanchez, who got the start Monday night and went 1-for-3 with a homer in a 4-3 victory over the Rangers, started again Tuesday night with Montgomery on the mound. Sanchez, who hit .147 with 10 homers and a .618 OPS in 49 games during last year’s 60-game COVID-19-shortened season, came into Tuesday hitting .211 with 22 homers and a .753 OPS in 107 games (Higashioka, after hitting .250 with four homers and a .771 OPS in 16 games last season, came into Tuesday hitting .176 with 10 homers and a .645 OPS in 62 games).
Higashioka though not with the arm possessed by Sanchez, is the superior defensive catcher, with the latter’s defensive issues showing up front and center of late in a couple of high-profile gaffes.
There was the late tag applied on the Mets’ Jonathan Villar on a play at the plate in the first inning of a game at Citi Field Sept. 10 – when Joey Gallo’s throw arrived to Sanchez some 15 feet before the runner did – and a dropped foul pop Saturday against Cleveland that contributed to a seven-run inning.
"I get frustrated a little bit even for him, that he has a couple plays that I think [the media] and most everyone who’s covered us on a daily basis have seen a guy that’s caught really well for us this year and has made really important and, I think, substantial defensive strides," Boone said. "And sometimes, because Gary is the lightning rod that he seems to be sometimes, a play or two really torpedoes some of that or changes that narrative. And that’s not necessarily fair."
Still, it’s the Yankees and not a narrative causing them to call the catching situation "day-to-day" for a second straight season down the stretch. Which makes it fair to wonder what the future looks like for Sanchez, who settled for $6.35 million last winter to avoid arbitration and would be in line to get a significant bump from that this offseason depending on if the Yankees want him back or will try to move the catcher.
As for his current status, Sanchez over the weekend indicated he isn’t sweating it.
"I don’t make those decisions," Sanchez said of who plays every day. "They do, and they make the best decision possible. For me, it’s just being ready to play every day."