It would be an understatement to say the Yankees have a busy offseason upcoming. The team has a 40-man roster that must be culled, and players to return from the 60-day injured list. The Yankees’ core of players seems to grow every day, and they’ll have decisions to make on veterans like Brett Gardner.
One unheralded veteran who will hit the free agent market this year is Austin Romine. Drafted by the Yankees in 2007 as the 94th pick overall, Romine made his MLB debut in 2011, and fully cemented his role as the backup catcher during the 2016 season. Romine hasn’t been the most productive catcher in the league, but fans have come to appreciate his contributions when filling in for injured starting catchers.
Most recently, when Gary Sanchez was injured from late-July to early-August, Romine stepped up and produced an absurd wRC+ of 190, posting an on-base percentage of .390, and an isolated power mark of .405. Romine has never before put together a hot streak like that, but he has shown the ability to go on a heater every once in a while.
Plenty of other catchers will hit the market along with Romine, as can be the case since not many catchers receive long-term contracts. For example, last offseason, Yasmani Grandal rejected a reported $60-million contact offer from the Mets because the annual value would have been a “disservice” to the catching market. Thus, even when the elite catchers do get offered a contract over multiple years, it might not be at their expected value, especially with how the last couple of quiet offseasons have gone.
When Romine hits free agency, he will no longer be a backup catcher; teams will have to judge him just like they would any other backstop. He might, surprisingly enough, profile as one of the market’s better-hitting catchers. Romine has produced a wRC+ of 90 over the past two seasons, which have doubled as his best seasons as a pro. For context, of all 44 catchers who have accumulated more than 400 plate appearances since the beginning of 2018, only 24 have a wRC+ above 85, and 12 are between 85 through 95. Romine ranks in the top-20 over that span, and ranks exactly 20th in wRC+ for just the 2019 season.
Considering the catching position just doesn’t have much offensive depth, Romine will hit the market as a interesting piece comparable to Tyler Flowers and Yan Gomes in offensive production and age. According to MLBTradeRumors, 18 major league catchers will become free agents this coming offseason, but only three of them are everyday starters for their respective teams. That doesn’t open up many opportunities for Romine, but in his favor, only 13 clubs have seen their catchers produce a wRC+ of 100 this season, and 15 clubs have seen their catchers produce a wRC+ of 85 or less. Those 15 clubs could look to bring in another bat at the position.
Offense is easier to find across the diamond, so when a catcher provides offensive production, it’s a huge positive for a team. What’s just as important or even more important for catchers is their defensive profile. Romine isn’t one of the league leaders among most defensive metrics, but like his offense he’s managed to work his way to the middle of the pack. Per Statcast, Romine ranks 18th out of 37 qualified catchers in terms of pitch framing. FanGraphs, which incorporates pitch framing into their calculations, ranks Romine 25th out of 41 catchers with at least 400 innings in terms of overall defense.
Essentially, Romine has played like a league average player or so the past couple seasons, without excelling in any one area or skill. Going back to those 15 clubs who saw their catchers produce a wRC+ of 85 or less, six of them also saw their catchers produce a lower defensive grade than Romine has, and nine teams produced lower pitch framing marks than Romine. Five teams saw lower offensive production, pitch framing marks, and overall defense, including the Orioles, Rockies, Tigers, and Rangers. Two are under a rebuild, but the Rockies and Rangers could be on the market for a catcher.
Whether Romine decides to leave the Yankees and seek the chance to become an everyday catcher is up to him, but it’s very unlikely he will leave to become a backup somewhere else. He’s shown the ability to cover Sanchez when needed, so I imagine the chances of him being offered the role once again are in his favor. Since securing the backup role in 2016, Romine has been part of the Yankees’ consistent improvement since that season. If Romine can keep up the performance he’s shown since 2018, he could probably start elsewhere, and if he finds such an opportunity, the Yankees could lose one of the better backups in the game.