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The Yankees have a decision to make at catcher

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Austin Romine is a free agent. Will the Yanks bring him back or let him walk?

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Austin Romine has been a solid backup catcher behind Gary Sanchez for the last few seasons. Whenever Sanchez went down with injuries, Romine was able to step in and produce for the Yankees. However, he is now a free agent, and New York will have a decision to make with regard to his future on the team.

If the Yankees want to bring Romine back, they obviously have the capability. The question would be whether or not he would want to continue to be the backup when he surely feels he can start somewhere else. It’s fair to say that the catchers position is the weakest in terms of offensive talent in the entire league. Just by virtue of having run a 95 OPS+ over the past two seasons, Romine might be a top-five catcher on the open market. This will make it harder for New York to bring him back in the pinstripes next season.

Ever since becoming the Yankees full time backup in 2016, the 30-year-old has hit for a decent slash-line of .247/.288/.383. For comparison, Jonathan Lucroy, who started this season, slashed .232/.305/.355 with both the Angels and Cubs in 2019. Romine is also known for calling a good game and forming great relationships with his pitchers. Back in 2017, he was Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray’s “personal catcher., though when Aaron Boone was given the managerial job he put a halt to that.

Is Romine vital to the Yankees’ success? No, not necessarily. I would consider it as a luxury to have a backup as good as he is. But many catcher-needy teams will throw offers his way and if he decides to sign elsewhere, the Yankees will most likely replace him with Kyle Higashioka.

The 29-year-old Higashioka has only appeared in 56 major league games in his career (18 this season), but has held his own when called upon. The sample size is too small to really see what he’s about, he has shown some potential. What’s pretty remarkable about Higashioka is that he went hitless in his first 22 at-bats in the big leagues, but was able to take David Price yard in his 23rd at-bat for his first hit in the MLB. I’d say that’s a fitting way to welcome yourself to the next level.

His Triple-A numbers hint at a potentially interesting player. “Higgy” had the best season of his minor league career in 2019, including an exceptional on-base percentage of .348, and registered a 129 wRC+. The main thing that stood out was his power numbers. He slugged 20 home runs, posted a .303 ISO, and a 21.8% HR/FB rate. Incredibly, Higashioka boosted his slugging figures so much even while striking out less that 20% of the time, a challenging feat. On the defensive side, DRS has rated Higashioka three runs above average in his short major-league career, though not much should be read into small-sample defensive statistics.

With the possibility of Romine departing in free agency, the Yankees might have to make a decision if they want Higashioka to be behind Sanchez or go out and sign someone else. Romine is probably the safest option, while Higashioka’s offensive breakout this year could mean he has a slightly higher upside. If the Yankees don’t find either choice satisfactory, they’ll be forced to turn to the outside for their backup backstop.