TAMPA, Fla. — Gary Sanchez wanted to be clear on this point.
Yes, he fully understands why he was benched late last season — to the extent that backup Kyle Higashioka became ace Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher and to the extent that Higashioka started five of the Yankees’ seven playoff games.
All of it left the 28-year-old Sanchez, a Yankee since he was signed at the age of 16 out of the Dominican Republic, swimming in uncertainty entering spring training, even with general manager Brian Cashman indicating throughout the offseason that the starting catcher job basically was his to lose.
"Honestly, it wasn't easy. I am used to playing every day, and not being able to contribute, although you want to, it wasn't easy," Sanchez said through his interpreter Saturday afternoon after Yankees pitchers and catchers worked out at the club’s minor league complex. "At the same time, I understood."
Sanchez spoke publicly for the first time since making headlines in the offseason in an interview with ESPN in which he said, among other things, that the Yankees "never told me why I was benched. I didn’t know why I wasn’t playing."
But Sanchez played it much closer to the vest Saturday than he did in the wide-ranging interview in Spanish he gave in December in which he opened up in ways he had not previously.
On Saturday, Sanchez, who played winter ball in the Dominican Republic — strictly as a DH — to sharpen his swing, again acknowledged just how miserable his 2020 season was and expressed his desire to be the everyday catcher. But he kept it there.
"That's something I can't do. I can't name myself the starting catcher," he said. "But what I can tell you is that I do want to be playing every day. I don't see myself just playing two times a week. I feel I would like to have the opportunity to play every day."
Of the swing tweaks he made (mostly relating to keeping his weight on his back leg while in the box), Sanchez said: "I do feel good with the adjustments that I've made. I think they're going to be key and they're going to make a difference. I feel great and I definitely think that this year is going to be different."
Sanchez, the biggest lightning rod among Yankees fans when it comes to the roster — and it’s not even close — is coming off far and away his worst season.
Not far removed from being one of the most feared righthanded hitters in MLB, he had a .147/.253/.365 slash line with 10 homers, 24 RBIs and 64 strikeouts in 156 at-bats in 49 games. (He had to get hot even to do that, as with 16 games left in the regular season, his slash line was .119/.232/.321.) That accompanied the uneven defense that has always been a part of his game.
And this was a player who had hit 105 homers in 370 games and recorded a .518 slugging percentage in his first four seasons.
Cashman, who has long been Sanchez’s biggest and most consistent supporter in the organization, continued to back him as the starting catcher during the winter. But the GM’s endorsement wasn’t nearly as absolute as in past years, and he also fired back about Sanchez’s comments to ESPN.
"Whether you were told directly [about the benching], I don’t really care,’’ Cashman said in late January on WFAN. "You’re pretty self-aware at that point. You had a horrible year on both sides of the ball. You lost your job in the most important time of the season, which is October baseball. I’m not sure an explanation is necessary."
On Saturday, Sanchez, as he did last October, did not defend his 2020 performance or state that he should have been in the lineup regularly.
"It was a tough, tough year for me. I don't see it as a good year," he said. "Right there you kind of understand that if you had better results, if you had had better production in the season, you would probably be playing. So you understand that part of the game and that part of the decision. At the same time, like I said, you have to turn the page and look toward a new year."
As is Aaron Boone, who visited Sanchez in the Dominican Republic the previous (non-COVID) offseason and whose relationship with the catcher has always been solid, regardless of the December interview.
"I think he looks really good," Boone said. "I like where he's at from a catching standpoint right now. I know [catching coach Tanner Swanson] came out probably about a month or so ago, maybe longer, to kind of set his pre-spring training work and routine in place. So I feel like they're on a good page now. He's made some adjustments offensively, shortening up his swing. So I would say here in the early days, he's doing quite well."