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The Yankees are all-in on Gary Sanchez

Between a near-record contract agreement and their offseason behavior, the team is signalling they’re behind their catcher

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Six Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

What’s a first year arbitration-eligible catcher worth? One who has posted 11.4 fWAR in his first four seasons, despite never appearing in more than 122 games in a season? If you’re the Yankees, you apparently believe he’s worth the second-highest contract ever given to a catcher in his first round of arbitration. Over the weekend the club and Gary Sanchez agreed on a $5 million dollar deal, avoiding the maligned arbitration process entirely.

The only catcher to get more in Sanchez’s situation was Buster Posey, and that should be a signal to fans just how much the Yankees believe in their backstop. In fact, all winter we’ve been given clues to the degree to which the Yankees are standing behind Sanchez, and it should reassure fans that the team sees him as one of the elite catchers in all of baseball.

I really like contracts as a signal of faith, because as Warren Buffet said, writing a check is the difference between commitment and conversation. More than just that, though, the Yankees have had multiple opportunities to shore up the catching position if they thought there was going to be an issue with Sanchez going forward, and they chose not to act on them.

The backup catcher as it stands today is Kyle Higashioka, a talented defender who for one reason or another has never got himself out of the minors for any extended length of time. He’ll get his crack on the 26-man roster in 2020, but it would be a mistake to think of him as anything but a backup, who may be pressed into full time work if Sanchez’s groin acts up again this year.

The Yankees had two different chances to get a more proven backup, as both Austin Romine and Martin Maldonado were free agents this winter. Romine may have been destined to walk, as he pretty clearly wanted an opportunity to start somewhere, but Maldonado would have made a lot of sense as the Yankees’ backup. He comes from the Astros and has a deep relationship with the Yankees’ shiny new toy, Gerrit Cole.

It wouldn’t have been a big deal to drop Higgy from the roster and sign Maldonado, the guy who caught your new ace in his best season, and has a track record of playing more than 100 games a season. That feels necessary if you’re backing up a starter with an injury history. Instead, the Yankees never made a move for Maldonado at all, letting him re-up with the Astros for a deal with $3.5 million AAV.

The catching depth behind Higgy is made up of two longtime vets who couldn’t get major-league work with any of the 30 MLB clubs. Both Erik Kratz and Chris Iannetta are inked to minor-league deals, and because of their service time, any move to the MLB roster would necessitate a DFA as soon as their services were no longer required. They signed a deal to either get designated or spend an entire season in Scranton.

Sanchez is a flawed player, despite his incredible talent. Even as he improved his much-maligned passed balls in 2019, he actually had his worst defensive season to date, being one of the worst full-time framers in baseball. Yet despite all the chances the Yankees have had to reduce his playing time or install a more “reliable” catcher, they hold firm on what they have. The only thing missing from a major commitment to Sanchez is a long-term extension.

That could still happen—we’re a couple weeks out yet from the unofficial start of #ExtensionSeason. I’m skeptical there’s a big contract for Gary this year though, for the same reason I’m skeptical there’s one for any of the Yankees. The addition of Cole balloons the team’s payroll for 2020, and I don’t see them increasing that number noticeably this season. The only extensions they have signed with their young players are the very affordable deals given to Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks.

That reluctance to ink guys like Sanchez and Aaron Judge to long-term agreements may end up costing the Yankees in the end. But for 2020 and the near term, Sanchez seems to be the Yankees’ man, and that’s a good thing for the team as a whole.