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Yankees position analysis: Club still high on Gary Sanchez despite struggles

Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez runs into the outfield

Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez runs into the outfield before Game 4 of the ALCS against the Houston Astros on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, at Yankee Stadium. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

During this pandemic-induced baseball hiatus, we examine the Yankees position by position. We already covered first basesecond baseshortstop and third base. Now, catcher. 

The starter: No player causes more division among Yankees fans than Gary Sanchez. There are a handful of reasons, but they  mostly can be boiled down to these three: inconsistency on defense, an inability to stay healthy and a perceived lack of hustle. The latter charge — which at times, especially in the minors, has been fair but more frequently in the majors hasn’t been — indirectly relates to the first two.

Regardless of where one comes down on Sanchez,  27, he is firmly locked in as the starting catcher for the foreseeable future, a perspective echoed, always quite forcefully, by general manager Brian Cashman.

“I think we have a distinct advantage by having Gary Sanchez as our everyday catcher,” Cashman said during the general managers' meetings in November. He later emphasized that there were no considerations of having anyone else as the starting catcher in 2020.

Still, durability has been a concern. The most games Sanchez has played in a season is 122, and that was in 2017, his first full season in the big leagues. It has been a struggle to stay on the field since, as a variety of injuries have  limited him to a combined 195 games the last two years — 89 in 2018 and 106 in 2019.

The injuries seem to have taken a toll on the one part of Sanchez’s game that, dating to his climb through the minors, had never been questioned: his offense.

Few mentioned, or cared about, the miscues behind the plate when,  after an early August call-up in 2016, Sanchez hit 20 homers and produced a 1.052 OPS in the final 52 games. Or in 2017, when he hit .278 with 33 homers, 90 RBIs  and an .876 OPS. But as those numbers have dipped, it has corresponded with increased vocalization about his defensive shortcomings, which the Yankees hope can be fixed with the new stance the catcher was working on in spring training.

Sanchez did have 34 homers and 77 RBIs last season, but he has batted. 186 and .232 the past two years, far below what is expected of him. 

The other options: The Yankees were more than solid at backup catcher in recent seasons with Austin Romine, an organizational lifer (a second-round pick in 2007) who excelled on defense and was respected in the clubhouse. But Romine, who signed a free-agent deal with the Tigers in the offseason, never was a favorite of the Yankees' analytics department, which preferred Kyle Higashioka, another organizational lifer (a seventh-round pick in 2008).

The job now belongs to  Higashioka, 30, who also draws raves for his work behind the plate and is a popular clubhouse presence. Higashioka displayed some pop at the plate in the minors, something that hasn’t shown yet in his limited time in the majors (he’s hit .164 with six homers and a .547 OPS in 56 games in the big leagues  the last three seasons).

The Yankees, while confident in Higashioka’s abilities  and Sanchez’s durability, nonetheless protected themselves in the offseason, bringing three catchers with big-league experience to spring training — Josh Thole, Chris Iannetta and Erik Kratz.

The future: See above. The Yankees, led by Cashman, believe it will be Sanchez long-term, even with some of the outside speculation about a move to full-time DH or first base. In terms of what’s on the way, unlike multiple other positions organizationally, the Yankees are considered to be fairly deep at catcher by rival talent evaluators who cover their system. Among the group mentioned most frequently are Josh Breaux, 22, whose raw power caused the Yankees to make him their second-round pick in 2018 (he hit 13 homers in 51 games with low Class A Charleston last season); Anthony Seigler, 20, the club’s first-round pick from the same 2018 draft, whose 2019 season at Charleston was cut short because of a patella fracture he suffered behind the plate, and Antonio Gomez, signed at the age of 16 for $600,000 out of Venezuela in the international draft in 2018. His arm caught the eye of several opposing team scouts in rookie league ball last summer.  

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