It’s been a rough week for labor relations inside baseball, as several prominent players reacted to ownership’s most recent economic proposal. Any momentum MLB may have had to a quick return was at least tamped down, if not extinguished entirely. We can still be optimistic that baseball will be played in 2020, but it’s less likely now than it was a week or so ago.
As far as the Yankees are concerned, Gary Sanchez has the most to lose. The catcher worked the first few weeks of spring training with so much promise about his upcoming year. A new catching coordinator, Tanner Swanson was hired in the offseason. He was credited with great progress among the catchers of his previous club, the Minnesota Twins,
Sanchez, long criticized for inconsistency at the plate and shoddy defense, showed a new setup behind the plate, similar to what was used by Mitch Garver and Jason Castro in Minnesota. There was hope that he was going to be at least average defensively. Combining that with his regular offensive production makes him just about the most valuable catcher in baseball.
On that offensive side, Sanchez showed us again in 2019 why he’s so valuable. A 116 wRC+, better than catchers like J.T. Realmuto, put him back in the elite level of offense for the position, and while he only played in 106 games, that was a step up over his disastrous 2018. Even in his great 2017 campaign, he only made it into 122 games. Durability has never been Sanchez’s strong suit.
That aside, there was a lot of optimism for Sanchez’s 2020, and that alone makes the potential loss of the season a big deal. Having so much value contributed from your catcher is an advantage the Yankees have over most teams, and a lost season means you can’t press that advantage. There’s also the issue of his age.
This is Sanchez’s age-27 season, right around where we see most players plateau in their overall production. There’s a steady decline in both production and games played behind the plate once catchers pass 27. If you don’t follow the data, follow the anecdote: Joe Mauer’s age-27 season was the last year he spent more than 100 games at catcher. Brian McCann had a 4.2 fWAR season in his age-27 year, and was never better than four wins again.
Not every catcher is Joe Mauer, and certainly we’ve seen examples to the opposite in guys like Yasmani Grandal. The combination of age and Sanchez’s durability issue makes it likely that he’s in his peak now, and losing a year of your peak hurts. Even if he sticks with the Yankees beyond his 2023 free agency, he’s likely not sticking at catcher in perpetuity, and his value drops precipitously if he’s a first baseman or DH.
There’s a financial stake for Sanchez, too. He’s arb-2 eligible after this season, which is generally the first big raise young players receive. If 2020 plays out and he’s as valuable as we know he can be, the Yankees might decide to work out an extension at best, but he’d certainly get a bump in pay heading into 2021. Instead, a lost season likely means he agrees to a similar deal as he did over the winter, avoiding arbitration in his first year of eligibility.
So much of Sanchez’s value is tied to his age and position. He’s one of the best hitting catchers in the game, but he’s not nearly as good an offensive first baseman or DH. So much of his financial future depended on a big 2020, and it looks less and less likely that he’ll get a chance to show off in an important season. Every player stands to suffer something if the season is cancelled, but it’s hard to think of a Yankee with more to lose.