New York Yankees: Key Position Battles for Spring Training

New York Yankees, Tyler Wade

New York Yankees fans can rejoice. Spring training is… well, pretty much here. Pitchers and catchers report today. It’s now interesting to see just how many position battles are brewing before the Spring Training season officially begins. Here’s a quick rundown:

Number 5 Starter

With James Paxton out until May/June, and Happ sliding in for Domingo German until his suspension is over, there’s an opening in the rotation for the next couple of months. Jordan Montgomery is the odds on favorite, but Luis Cessa and Johnathan Loaisiga have a distinct edge. That edge being… they aren’t coming back from Tommy John Surgery. Devi Garcia is also coming to camp for the first time and can make a legitimate claim for the spot, leapfrogging over the three veterans.

Third Base

Rightfully, third base is Gio Urshela’s to lose. However, Miguel Andujar, who will be tried out at several other positions, will have a chance to take it back. His rehab for his labrum tear began in earnest in September and has more on his side than Urshela. Urshela has to prove that his subpar defensive statistics for 2019 were an anomaly and that his offensive output can be maintained throughout the 2020 campaign.

4th Outfielder

Until Aaron Hicks can come back from Tommy John surgery, the likely outfield configuration will be Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner, and Giancarlo Stanton. Countless Yankee fans want to see Clint Frazier given his opportunity, that his bat is worth the chance in the outfield. But if he can’t improve his defensive capabilities, why would the Yankees need him? Urshela and Andujar will see some time in the outfield, Tyler Wade can play outfield in a pinch, and you’ll have Stanton, Andujar, Voit, and Sanchez all seeing regular time in the DH slot. Where does Frazier fit in if his defense is just as sloppy as it was in 2019?

Backup Catcher

The Yankees have been STOCKPILING on backup catchers in the past few months. This is after Brian Cashman admitted that he’d be comfortable with Kyle Higashioka as the backup after Austin Romine left for the Detroit Tigers. You just signed 3 veteran catchers, all of whom could easily be backups for Gary Sanchez. If they REALLY were feeling comfortable with Higashioka at the backup role, you wouldn’t go out of your way to sign three catchers. I am seriously beginning to question if Higashioka will make it out of Tampa.

These are just some of the position battles to keep an eye on as Spring Training progresses. New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka feels Astros cheated them out of World Series

The Yankees Don’t Have as Much Faith in Kyle Higashioka

New York Yankees, Kyle Higashioka

The New York Yankees decided the best option they have is to shore up their options at the catcher position for the 2020 season. Signing Eric Kratz earlier this offseason, they recently signed Chris Iannetta to a minor league contract with a spring training invite. Now, at the GM meetings this offseason, Brian Cashman said he’d “feel comfortable using (Higashioka) as the permanent backup catcher”. But does he really?

Why Iannetta Matters to Higashioka

Higashioka is out of options. So if Higashioka makes the team for Opening Day, and is sent back down, he’ll no longer be protected by the Yankees. He’ll have to clear waivers in order to return to Scranton. Now, let’s evaluate Iannetta vs Higashioka, as one of them will be filling in for an extended time behind Gary Sanchez, in all likelihood. 

With 56 major league games to his credit, Higashioka has a bit of a Tyler Wade problem. He’s a mediocre (at best) hitter, while simultaneously embodying the biggest problem with hitters. If he isn’t hitting for power, he’s getting out. He currently posses a 30% strikeout rate (48 strikeouts in 156 plate appearances), which is not great. While he’s spent most of his time in the minors (since 2008), Higashioka is a pretty lackluster defensive catcher. His dWAR is only 0.2, which helps explain (as well as his -0.3 oWAR) why he never stuck around the bigs.

Chris Iannetta is, by contrast, the perfect backup catcher. He’s not going to hit a ton, but he’s going to be much more dependable both offensively AND defensively than Higashioka. Iannetta’s career 19.0 and 3.8 o/dWAR’s speak to that value. Granted, Iannetta has had much more time getting to that point on a big league level than Higashioka has had, but if Higashioka was actually good enough, he should have had the opportunity to get a regular spot on the big club before he turned 30.

It’s like the Clint Frazier problem the Yankees have. If Frazier’s defense was better, Frazier would be the shoe in over Mike Tauchman for that 4th outfielder spot. If Higgy was a more viable option than Romine, Romine wouldn’t have been on the big club for as long as he was.

At the end of the day, you don’t go out and sign 2 backup to the backup catchers if you have faith in Higashioka.

The New York Yankees Catcher Conundrum Continues

New York Yankees, Zach Britton

The New York Yankees are in a precarious situation regarding their catcher position. Yes, Gary Sanchez is a boon for the team and will be the everyday catcher for the foreseeable future. Kyle Higashioka is a career minor league catcher, who’s a lackluster offensive player, is going to be our backup, even with the prospect of him filling in as the everyday catcher for a couple of weeks at a time. Of course, the Yankees are expecting Sanchez to stay healthy for 140 games, but we need to be prepared for this eventuality.

Why the Yankees WON’T Go After a Free Agent Catcher

Let’s remember, the Yankees are at the final tier of the luxury tax. Anyone they sign is going to be an extra 42.5% tax added on to that player’s salary.

The Yankees are ALL IN on Higashioka. If they weren’t they’d have resigned Austin Romine. Why? Because he’d cost less money than Romine (Maldonado signed for $7 million over two years, Romine signed for $4 million). The Yankees like the power potential they’ve seen from Higashioka. In Higashioka’s 146 at-bats, he has 24 hits, 6 of which are home runs, 7 are doubles. Not bad, but 24-146 is pretty awful all things considered.

Why The Yankees SHOULD Go After Another Catcher

Security, for obvious reasons. They don’t have the greatest of depth at this position. It’s essentially just Sanchez and Higashioka. They did resign Erik Kratz to a minor league deal, but a 40-year-old backup catcher isn’t the greatest insurance policy in the world, right? And, again, Higashioka’s offensive shortcomings make the prospect of Sanchez going down for an extended period all the less appealing.

There are some other catchers who the Yankees could acquire by the trade deadline that would be a greater insurance policy than Erik Kratz. Former Yankees Brian McCann, Chris Stewart, Russell Martin, and Fransisco Cervelli are all free agents on the backend of their careers. A minor-league deal for any of them isn’t a terrible option. And with Yankee fans clamoring for another lefty bat, Brian McCann would make the most sense and appease fan’s concerns.

So, there are options for the New York Yankees next season in the unlikely situation that the Yankees lose both Sanchez AND Higashioka.

New York Yankees: Will Austin Romine remain the Yankees Back-up catcher?

In 2018, New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez missed a good portion of the season because of groin injuries throughout the season. When he went down, back-up catcher Austin Romine did a great job behind the plate, but in the case for Yankees fans, did Romine do “too good of a job” in the sense that he could be traded to another team to take the role as a starting catcher? If that were to happen, would Kyle Higashioka do a good enough job as the back-up?

Is Romine deserving of a starting job elsewhere?

Around the trade deadline last season, the first rumors emerged that teams would possibly be interested in acquiring Austin Romine in a trade for a pitcher. He caught a good amount of games from May into mid-summer when Sanchez was rehabbing his groin and found himself on the DL twice.

In 242 at-bats in 2018, Romine hit .244 and had an OBP of .295 while slugging .417. In addition, he had 10 HR and 42 RBIs. He has shown in the last three seasons that he is a more reliable defensive catcher with a fielding percentage of .994 and a significantly less number of pass balls, compared to 18 passed balls for Sanchez in just 74 starts behind the plate in 2018.

Another thing that attracts teams to Romine is his work ethic and passion of the game. In 2018, he won the Yankees “heart and hustle award”, and has previously worked so hard to try and get back to the major leagues after limited appearances in 2011, 2014, and 2015, and no appearances in 2012. He’s also been known to stand up for his teammates and call out opposing players when need be. His most famous example of that is his brawl with Miguel Cabrera in 2017 against the Tigers.

Could Kyle Higashioka do a good enough job?

Kyle Higashioka has also been constantly working as hard as he can for his shot. Despite many trips up and down from AAA since the beginning of 2017, he wasn’t able to get his first until 2018 when he hit a long home-run during Sunday Night Baseball against the Red Sox.

His first three major league hits were actually home-runs but only hit .167 in 72 AB. He did have solid defense, with just one error in 20 starts, but his arm needs work. He would generally put the throws on target, just not quick enough.

Higashioka clearly had trouble at-bat in 2018, and also struggled in AAA batting only .202. With that average, he should be lucky that the Yankees were relatively low on catching options because he could have easily been sent down to AA. His fielding percentage was even slightly lower with Trenton, at .986.

Kyle Higashioka clearly needs work to be MLB ready. Besides his fielding percentage, his hitting numbers are nowhere near ready to be the MLB back-up catcher. If the Yankees were to trade Romine, they would need to receive a MLB ready catcher in exchange or sign an MLB veteran catcher, or claim one off of waivers. Veterans Matt Weiters, Caleb Joseph, and Stephen Vogt are all free-agents and could work as a back-up if a trade were to happen.