The Yankees lost one of the most reliable backstops in the business. For the last several years, the Yankees have had their ace in the hole, Austin Romine available to back up the injury-prone Gary Sanchez. As a free agent, Romine tested the waters and ended up with the Detroit Tigers, where he will compete during spring training for the starting catchers spot. Unfortunately for Romine, he will be playing for arguably the worst performing team in the league, having lost 114 games this past season. Baltimore was the worst team in the East, but the Tigers were the worst in baseball, breaking the record for losses previously held by the 1904 Washington Senators. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Romine’s departure leaves us with an injury-prone Sanchez and, for the most part, a backup catcher in the relatively untested Kyle Higashioka. I’ll explain what I mean by that later.
In my opinion, Gary Sanchez is a huge question mark for several reasons. One is his injury record. In 2018 he was either day to day or on the IL four times during the season. Once in May, twice in June and once in July for a total of 64 days. In 2019 that total didn’t improve much, being away from the game 54 times, including rest days. The reason this is a critical question mark is that this record is likely to continue. In the past two years, although we may have lost a few homers here or there, we had a reliable, proven catcher in Romine. This year not so. If Sanchez is out 50-70 games, it will put Kyle Higashioka behind the plate. Higgy did fine last year but has never been tested at the Stadium and on the road for long periods.
Also, we have the untested 40-year-old Eric Kratz that the Yankee recently acquired and is sitting at Scranton Wilkes/Barre. The other question mark may have been answered during this past season. In 2018 he had more passed balls than any primary league catcher, but this improved significantly during the 2019 season. He is young and is likely to continue to grow, and he already has a cannon for an arm.
Now back to why our backup catcher will be so important this year. Gary will almost inevitably have more injuries, more specifically, groin injuries. Groin injuries are quite common in baseball, but often severe in catchers because of the demands on their groin muscles playing in their position. Catchers that have groin problems tend to continue to have them. Gary, in 2019 had seven injuries, five of them groin injuries. According to the severity of groin injuries, you can be out a few days or in a severe case for weeks at a time. So with his history, we undoubtedly will see backup catchers more than we wish too.
As EmpireSportsMedia’s Alexander Wilson reported. There are two free agent catchers out there that the Yankees should look at. Jason Castro of the Twins is probably the best catcher available and could even contend with Sanchez during spring training, for starting catcher. He is a good defender and has some pop, he hit 13 home runs last year and drove in 30 in only 79 games and 275 at-bats. Castro is 32, so he probably has a few more good years in him. The second option is Kevin Plawecki. He is only 28. He is a good defender with only two errors in 57 games. Hitting, he is not much of an improvement from Higashioka.
There are a few other options available, one is Russel Martin the one time Yankee, that we know can handle catching at the stadium. At his age (36), his career behind the plate is pretty much over, but still has an occasional pop to his bat. The downside to Martin is that he can’t throw out base stealers. Another possibility is Baltimore’s backup catcher, Caleb Joseph, who is defensively similar to Sanchez. A plus for him is that he catches runners at a 33% rate. My personal choice to back up Sanchez is Martin Maldonado, who was Gerrit Cole’s choice of a catcher at the Houston Astros. Unfortunately, although not official, reports seem to indicate he will stay with the Astros.
The question over Higashioka could go either way; he might break down if used to frequently or may surprise us and have a break out season like Gio Urshela did this year. I may be putting more importance on Gary Sanchez’s injury history than is due. Still, at the same time, it’s believable that Sanchez could again be out for prolonged periods, placing Kyle Higashioka in a territory he is not familiar with, thus suggesting the need for another catcher in our system.