In a season where he found himself the subject of conversation among Yankees fans for all the wrong reasons, Gary Sánchez will likely enter the 2020 season doing something he has not done since he first came up in 2016: fight for his job.
When asked on the end-of-season conference call with reporters about the starting catcher job on Wednesday, Brian Cashman refused to commit outwardly to either Sánchez or Kyle Higashioka — who began the season as the team’s backup — as the starter. “Could very well be a change, could very well be a competition,” he said, also adding that “the way Gary Sánchez’s season transpired and then the way it ended with Higashioka actually starting in the postseason as many games as he did” makes it “one of the discussion points we’re going to have to focus on.”
Not surprisingly, this statement, albeit not completely unexpected, has sparked a flurry of blog posts, podcast comments, Twitter discussions, and columns about Sánchez’s future with the Yankees. Sánchez, who will turn 28 years old in August, will be eligible for his second year of arbitration, after receiving $5 million last winter; as such, he’s been considered by speculators to be either on the trade market or, even more drastically, a nontender candidate.
I’m not going to get into the merits of moving Sánchez this winter: your perspective on the matter is going to come down to your opinion of his ability to bounce back from such a bad season, as his trade value is at an all-time low. Additionally, Matt Swartz’s projections of arbitration salaries, posted at MLB Trade Rumors, project him to receive only a minimal salary bump (between $100,000-$1.5 million at most), a fairly reasonable number, in my opinion, for a guy as streaky as Sánchez has been. What I do want to look at, however, is the idea of a competition for the starting catching job itself.
Although it’s easy to forget, given how his season went and how long ago it was, but Luke Voit did not enter spring training this year as the undisputed starter at first base. Thanks to his injury-riddled second half that saw him post only a .228/.348/.368 slash with four home runs in 40 games from July-September and Mike Ford’s hot streak in August and September — .274/.333/.619 slash with 11 home runs in 39 games (27 games started) — many speculated that Ford would have a real shot to take the job. Later, once Miguel Andújar began to learn first base in the spring, and it looked as though the Yankees were at least considering other alternatives for the position, even if Voit was the clear front-runner even before camp began.
Chances are, we may end up seeing something similar next spring behind the plate, particularly if the Yankees do not add an additional catcher (except, of course, for those in the Erik Kratz mold, primarily brought in for spring training depth and ticketed for Scranton from day one). That said, while the competition will likely be fairer than any first base competition had been this past year, as things currently stand, the Yankees will almost certainly be pulling for Sánchez to claim the bulk of the playing time for himself. For all the hype that Higashioka’s performance generated, in truth, he turns 31 next April, and has only 72 games scattered over four seasons under his belt. At his best, on the other hand, Sánchez can be a game-changer, capable of providing corner-infield levels of production at a position that’s primarily known for weak-hitting, defense-first players.
No matter how a potential position battle shakes out, both players would likely receive plenty of playing time. While it is not confirmed whether Higashioka will continue as Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher, it’s probably a safe bet at this point. Even if Sánchez pulls away and wins the competition outright, he likely won’t be starting on Opening Day, and will be sitting at least once every five days anyway.
Of course, we’re still in mid-October, and pitchers and catchers will report somewhere around February 16-17 (when the Mets, Orioles, and Rays, the only three teams that have currently announced their spring training schedule, will report). Between now and then, there’s still four months in which trades, free agent signings, and more will be occurring. A lot can happen between now and then — and that’s even before we begin to discuss whether or not spring training will begin on time! That said, the Yankees’ catching job will be a story to keep an eye on over the next few months.