The hot stove has reached adequately warm temperatures. The Red Sox let go of the best hitting prospect in baseball in exchange for Chris Sale, the Nationals sent away the best pitching prospect in the game for Adam Eaton, and the Yankees relieved themselves of gobs of money in order to bring back Aroldis Chapman. So, naturally, let's talk about backup catchers.
Entering the offseason, it was known that Brian McCann's spot on the team was tenuous, but he was nominally slated to be a strong backup catcher/DH option, with Gary Sanchez taking over starting catching duties. That plan obviously was quickly done away with, as McCann found a new home in Houston. That leaves the Yankees with Austin Romine as the top catcher behind Sanchez.
Romine has held a steady reputation as a defensively solid, unexciting but worthwhile reserve catcher option. At this juncture, however, it's worth questioning whether that reputation is deserved. No longer a young player, Romine instead has established himself as neither good enough to hit at the major league level, nor a defensive asset behind the plate.
Simply put, Romine has been a drag on the Yankees' offense whenever he has had to step up to the plate. While he has appeared in four different major league seasons, Romine has only recorded 359 career plate appearances, but the results are still unseemly: a .222/.256/.329 slash line and a 54 wRC+ for his career. Even last season, when Romine developed a bit more pop and seemed at times to be putting things together, he ran just a .242/.269/.382 line with a 68 wRC+.
This might be less of a concern if Romine had a sterling minor league track record, or if he was still a young prospect adjusting to professional pitching. Instead, Romine is 28 years old, in the middle of his hypothetical peak years as a hitter, and his production in the minors was no less disappointing. He owned a .678 OPS at Triple-A, and it wasn't the case that he struggled to put up numbers as an especially young player at Triple-A. The majority of Romine's appearances at the level came when he was 25 or 26, not a very young age at all for Triple-A.
If Romine was a defensive ace, his shortcomings on offense would be forgivable. Still, even as catcher defense is hard to pin down, there seems to be little evidence that Romine is truly strong behind the plate. FanGraphs' defensive valuations peg him as essentially average for his career, while Baseball Prospectus estimated that Romine was a below average framer last year. It's hard to say anything with certainty, but Romine surely doesn't look like a slam-dunk plus defensive catcher.
With Romine playing below replacement level, it's fair to ask, should the Yankees look for more? Sanchez is the top dog at catcher, but the Yankees won't want to run him into the ground. Catching is a strenuous activity, and having an able backup to catch once or twice a week provides the starter with vital rest.
The Yankees can consider a number of options. The most talented one was probably Welington Castillo, who was surprisingly non-tendered by the Diamondbacks earlier this month, but the Orioles reportedly just snapped him up yesterday. Other external options include Alex Avila and Chris Ianetta, both of whom have had success at the plate in the past. Veteran switch-hitter Jarrod Saltalamacchia has a career 103 wRC+ as a lefty versus righties, making him theoretically a fine platoon match for Sanchez.
Perhaps most interestingly, the Yankees could look internally at Kyle Higashioka, whom the Yankees added to the 40-man roster recently in order to protect him in the Rule 5 draft. Higashioka broke out in the minors this year, posting a .276/.337/.511 slash line across Double and Triple-A, and at 26, he might never be more ready to make his major league debut. There are decent odds that Higashioka wouldn't be able to sustain anything particularly close to his minor league production in the majors, but Romine's career 54 wRC+ is certainly a bar he should be expected to clear, and scouting reports of Higashioka’s defensive capabilities are generally quite positive.
Backup catcher discussions aren't sexy, and what the Yankees do at the position probably won't have much of an impact on their season. Even so, the Yankees’ current backup situation is poor, with Romine quietly putting up awful results. An upgrade to a legitimate major league hitter could provide a boost of perhaps a win on the margins, and if there's any chance to improve, it should be something the Yankees are considering.