SAN DIEGO — Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has always been Gary Sanchez’s No. 1 backer in the organization.
Even after Sanchez’s at-times-rough 2019 — which was far better than his brutal 2018 — Cashman wouldn’t entertain thoughts of anyone but Sanchez serving as the Yankees’ starting catcher in 2020.
"I think we have a distinct advantage by having Gary Sanchez as our everyday catcher," Cashman said during last year’s general managers’ meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona. "And I know many in the industry feel the same way by their attempts last year, these extremely smart teams, trying to see if they can get their hands on him. They’re not going to ask this year because everybody saw the numbers behind the numbers from last year and they know what he’s capable of. They know he’s a huge difference-maker being able to run him out there behind the plate."
Is that the way Sanchez is viewed in October 2020? Not so much. The situation has changed markedly, and when the Yankees faced the Rays in the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS on Friday night, the slumping Sanchez did not start for the fourth time in five games.
When Cashman spoke during the GM meetings last year, Sanchez was coming off a 2019 season in which he hit .232 but had 34 homers and an .841 OPS in 106 games (in 2018, he hit .186 with 18 homers and a .697 OPS in 89 games).
Both of those seasons, it turned out, were positively Pudge Rodriguez-esque compared to what happened in 2020. Sanchez, 27, had a147/.253/.365 slash line, 10 homers and 24 RBIs in 49 games.
There was the typical good-news-bad-news with Sanchez’s defense, but his status going into the postseason was overwhelmingly the result of his hitting woes — as well as the groove ace Gerrit Cole established down the stretch with backup Kyle Higashioka, a 2008 third-round pick of the Yankees who has for years been a favorite of the team’s analytics department.
"Another close call for me," Aaron Boone said before the Yankees’ season-saving 5-1 victory in Game 4 in which Higashioka, long known for his defense, went 2-for-4 with an RBI, improving him to 5-for-16 with a homer this postseason.
"It comes down to more Kyle earning these opportunities. I feel like he’s providing enough for us offensively and doing a great job behind the plate. Honestly, felt like I could have gone with Gary as well and would have felt good about that. But in the end, after contemplating it, talking with some coaches a little bit, just felt like this was the way I wanted to go today."
Still, the evidence is the evidence, and it suggests that Higashioka, at least as far as these playoffs are concerned, clearly has supplanted Sanchez as the club’s No. 1 catcher.
In addition to catching all of Cole’s starts this postseason, Higashioka got the nod in Game 3 with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound and Game 4 with Jordan Montgomery starting. In the latter game, he distinguished himself by repeatedly blocking difficult-to-stop pitches in the dirt with men on base.
In the one game Sanchez did start, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts to continue his season-long struggles at the plate. He struck out 64 times in 156 at-bats in the regular season.
Sanchez hit 53 homers in 672 at-bats and had a .284/.354/.568 slash line in 2016-17, but only a few years later, the question is what will happen with Sanchez in the offseason. Will Cashman pull the trigger on a Sanchez trade that would shake up his club’s catching situation?
"He definitely still has trade value," one opposing team executive said Friday. "It’s not close to what it might have been, say, three years ago, but no one has catching [depth]. And there’s still the bat potential and the arm. Teams will inquire for sure."
Another opposing team executive said: "I think [Cashman] will have trouble trading him, but that will depend on the [asking price], too. The bottom line is, and everyone’s been talking about it for years, there’s such a dearth of catching in the game . . . He’s still dangerous because of the bat and throwing arm. Might be the classic change-of-scenery guy."
Sanchez’s long-term future with the Yankees suddenly seems very much up in the air, with all of the uncertainty of 2020 likely to carry over into 2021. That especially will be the case when it comes to the offseason spending of teams — including the Yankees — who lost a significant amount of revenue in this COVID-19 season.
Sanchez, who was signed at the age of 16 by the Yankees in 2009, very well could be back with the Yankees in 2021 as the starter, in a different role — either as a backup or tried out at a different position — or not at all.
"We made a good decision to keep him," Cashman said during last November’s GM meetings.
It remains to be seen if the Yankees still feel that way.