From August to October of 2016, Gary Sánchez could do no wrong on the baseball field. He captivated fans with his mammoth home runs, cannon throwing arm, and burgeoning confidence. It was all so much simpler then.
In the four years since, Sánchez has become a lightning rod for Yankees fans. Saddled with sky-high expectations as a consequence of his dynamic 2016 debut, Sánchez largely hasn’t met them. He has produced two All-Star offensive seasons and two downright abysmal ones, and while his defense has improved in some ways, it will never be a strength. Sánchez’s Yankees career hit rock bottom when he was benched for all but one game of the 2020 ALDS, when 30-year-old backup Kyle Higashioka was deemed the better option with the team’s season on the line.
Now, headed for his second year of arbitration eligibility and still just entering his projected statistical prime in his age-28 season, Sánchez sits at a career crossroads. Your guess at what Sánchez will provide for the Yankees next year (or any MLB club, for that matter) is as good as mine. You could say he’ll hit .170 with 18 home runs, or you could say he’ll post a .850 OPS and 30+ home runs, and both answers would be perfectly reasonable. It is hard to predict what the future holds for Sánchez.
One thing I can say with certainty though: the Yankees should not give up on him. Sánchez’s talents are so tantalizing that he deserves this one last chance in pinstripes. Letting him go right now would probably not yield the valuable return necessary to justify the move, and hanging onto him just might. And if it doesn’t? There might be other options.
The Yankees are actually a surprisingly catching-rich organization right now. Four of their top 30 prospects are catchers, including their 2020 first-round draft pick, Austin Wells. Now, none of these prospects have made it to the Double-A level yet, but the Yankees have certainly invested heavily in their future behind the plate. It’s something to consider with Sánchez hitting free agency in two years. That internal competition is enough to let him know that his clock is ticking.
If Sánchez was so bad though, why keep him around? A lot of this has to do with value. Sánchez was slated to make $5 million in 2020 (coronavirus-related cuts saw him only net $1.8 million), and coming off the worst season of his career, he certainly won’t be getting a major raise. The Yankees could quite feasibly offer Sánchez $5 million again, or even offer less and present it as a raise anyway given that he only took home roughly a third of his salary this season. Regardless of the dollars and cents, it won’t cost the Yankees much to keep Sánchez around, and the possible offensive production he could provide at such a low cost is certainly intriguing.
In fact, the concept of value is important in how we evaluate Sánchez overall in 2021. Maybe in 2016 there was talk that Sánchez was the best overall hitter on the Yankees, when he was batting second or third. Right now, though, Sánchez should be compared relative to what he’s become: an average MLB catcher. The question is, what does Sánchez provide compared to the rest of the field, what is that worth, and is the potential upgrade from his supposed replacement worth it?
It’s no secret that catchers league-wide aren’t great hitters. The average MLB OPS in 2020 was .740, and only 14 catchers surpassed that. Furthermore, only 15 had a wRC+ over 100. In a league where only 15 of 60 catchers are even average hitters, you can see why Sánchez, who led all backstops in home runs and wRC+ from 2016-2019, is so valuable.
Catchers who can’t hit stick around with their defense. Although Sánchez’s fielding has improved, it’s still a little below average in terms of framing and blocking. When Sánchez is slashing .147/.253/.365 like he did in 2020 and playing below-average defense, he’s a net negative. But, if he’s slashing .236/.320/.502 (his career averages) at an offensive-drained position, he’s an asset, even without Gold Glove defense. Don’t forget, he’s just one year removed from reaching those totals!
Expectations are important here. The Yankees aren’t counting on Sánchez to bat third anymore; he’s going to bat eighth or ninth. Given his reduced role and inexpensive salary, why not keep him around and try and catch lightning in a bottle one more time? Sanchez’s trade value is at an all-time low, and his replacement would likely be defensively competent, but have far inferior offensive potential. A pairing of Kyle Higashioka and a Jason Castro/Austin Romine-type free agent has both the ceiling and floor of a nine hitter for about $2-3 million total, while Sánchez has the same floor and a significantly higher ceiling for only $2 million extra. When you look at it that way, the decision is easy.
Unless the Yankees are getting significant cash savings or a big-time upgrade at a position of need, they should not sell low on Sánchez right now. Three things can happen in 2021 for him: he can either 1) become an All-Star again, 2) linger around league-average, or 3) continue his descent into replacement-level afterthought. If the first or last result happen, the Yankees’ future decision becomes easy. If the second result happens, they can buy more time and further groom their catching prospects before they have to seriously pay Sánchez.
Sánchez’s time to prove himself is running low, but it’s not out yet. Based on the organizational control the team has over him right now and the plentiful-but-raw state of their catching prospects, 2021 is shaping up to be Gary Sánchez’s make-it-or-break-it year for the Yankees before a big decision has to be made.