The Mets have been blessed with a seemingly never-ending pipeline of young and talented starting pitchers. The same could be said for the Red Sox and outfielders. The Royals? Relief pitchers. The Yankees have also been gifted with a position they’re particularly strong in. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as exciting as a top of the rotation starter, All-Star outfielder, or shutdown relief pitcher. Instead, the Yankees will never run out of catchers. More specifically…backup catchers.
The list goes on and on, from Chris Stewart to Francisco Cervelli to John Ryan Murphy to our latest suspect: Austin Romine. All of these players have or had one thing in common; with the Yankees, they weren’t quite good enough to start, but happened to be very capable backups. Unfortunately for them, this group also shared one more thing about their situation—they were no longer needed.
The most recent in a long line of Yankees backup catchers is Austin Romine. To start the season, he finally had his chance to shine in a backup role (if that’s even possible), and he, in a way, did. For a 27-year-old who hit .260/.311/.379 in his fifth straight season at Triple-A just last year, his performance in 2016 has been surprising. A team can do much worse than .246/.272/.406 with acceptable defense from their backup catcher, especially in a time where many of baseball’s starting catchers are below league average with the bat.
Although it wasn’t the most awe-inspiring of performances, there was nothing wrong with Romine’s 2016. He had a good opportunity to catch behind Brian McCann, and took advantage of it. Romine did a decent job as the backup catcher, which is all the team could ask from him.
Then, of course, The Kraken was unleashed. Gary Sanchez burst onto the scene, stealing McCann’s starting job and pushing Romine into the purgatory known as ‘third-string catcher.’ Teams simply don’t carry three catchers, and McCann can easily handle backup catching duties while also receiving the lion’s share of starts at designated hitter.
Like Romine’s predecessors before him, he’s now no longer wanted. The former second round pick has become expendable, and his future with the organization is uncertain. What is essentially a lock, though, is that Romine and McCann won’t be on the major league club at the same time come next season
Ideally, it will be Brian McCann who is traded this offseason. Despite being an excellent fit for Yankee Stadium’s short porch, McCann has struggled with the shift for years now and is on his way to a third straight year of a batting average under .235. Although he has plus power for a catcher, it’s slipped recently and this year’s isolated power mark will be his lowest since 2010. This season’s 100 wRC+ is certainly good enough for McCann to be a starting catcher somewhere, but his salary, age, and the presence of Sanchez makes him a poor fit in the Bronx. Romine would then be able to hold onto his role, but as an arbitration-eligible player, the Yankees probably don’t want to spend money on him.
If McCann isn’t traded, though, Romine will very likely be moved. Since the Yankees won’t be carrying three catchers, the move will either be a demotion to Triple-A after going through waivers or a trade. The popular opinion would probably advocate for Romine to be traded, but that may not be the smartest move. On the market, it’s hard to imagine him fetching much. He’s undoubtedly a backup catcher, and the market value for one isn’t exactly sky-high.
Romine rarely walks, has a limited track record, and, if his performance in the minors proves anything, this season’s 74 wRC+ is near his offensive ceiling. If he had plus defense, he could get a chance to hit on the bad side of a platoon for a team desperate for catching (93 wRC+ against LHP and a 50 wRC+ against RHP), but the righty grades out as below average with a -2.1 FRAA (via Baseball Prospectus).
Given the likely weak return, he may serve more value to the organization as an insurance option in Triple-A. Although Brian McCann has demonstrated remarkable durability for an aging catcher, he is still an aging catcher. If McCann was injured and Romine traded, the Yankees’ next best option would be the 26-year-old Kyle Higashioka, who, while raking in Triple-A, has questions about his defense and isn’t an ideal backup at this point.
If the Yankees choose to hold onto Romine as Triple-A depth, rather than trade him for what would be a wholly unimpressive return, it would be a change in philosophy. In the past, the Yankees have dealt players like Stewart, Cervelli and Murphy once they’re no longer key pieces of the 25-man roster. Then again, there was more capable depth behind them than the team currently has in the high minors. In a year that has been defined by trades, it may be best for Cashman to sit on his hands and hold onto Romine.