At first glance, the Yankees didn’t really need to draft a catcher in the early rounds of the draft. Gary Sanchez is one of the best-hitting backstops in the league, and likely has several years ahead of him as the Yankees’ masked man. Kyle Higashioka has worked through the the throes of the minor leagues to become a reliable backup, and the team has several veterans at the Triple-A level.
Despite this, the Yankees went out and drafted a catcher in the first round of the 2020 MLB draft. Austin Wells, an offensive-minded catcher from the University of Arizona, immediately adds to the Yankees’ collection of catching depth at the lower levels of the minor leagues. Although it looks like Wells was the last thing the Yankees really needed, and was more of a luxury pick, trends league-wide regarding catchers seem to indicate that the Yankees instead struck gold with this pick.
Plain and simple, catchers aren't what they used to be. Just 16 catchers (barely half the league’s starting crop) caught 100 games last year. That number was at 20 just five years ago. Offensively, the group’s average OPS declined to a paltry .678 in 2018, the lowest average OPS for catchers of the 30-team era. For whatever reason, finding durable catchers, catchers that can hit, or most rare, durable catchers that can hit, has become much harder in recent years.
Fortunately for the Yankees, they have excelled in recent years at developing catchers that are at least one of those things. Under “catchers that hit,” I present Sanchez, Jesus Montero and Francisco Cervelli. Under “durable catchers,” the Yankees have had Austin Romine and John Ryan Murphy. As for “durable catchers that can hit,” I’ll reserve that slot for Jorge Posada, although free agent additions Brian McCann and Russell Martin deserve some praise.
McCann and Martin aside, the Yankees have mostly developed their starting catchers for the last 25 years. Not only that, they’ve been darn good too! At a time when offense and durability from catchers is down, the Yankees have been one of the best behind the plate in those regards.
How does this figure into Wells’s drafting? Quite frankly, you can never have enough catchers from an organizational standpoint. Furthermore, catchers that can hit have become even more rare. The Yankees have tried to exploit this in recent years by hoarding any catcher with a good bat, such as Anthony Seigler and Josh Breaux in 2018.
Now, the Yankees obviously don’t need 10 catchers. They only need one starter and one backup on the Major League roster. But other teams need catchers, too. And when teams need a catcher, they usually call the Yankees. Just look at some of these trades the Yankees have made in the past 10 years using catchers:
Yankees have frequently used catching depth to fill other needs over the last decade:— Sweeny Murti (@YankeesWFAN) June 11, 2020
John Ryan Murphy for Aaron Hicks.
Jesus Montero for Michael Pineda.
Francisco Cervelli for Justin Wilson (Wilson traded later for Chad Green and Luis Cessa).
They also traded McCann to Houston for two pitching prospects. There is such a dearth of catchers league-wide that any team that can develop these talents stands to benefit from it. It’s supply and demand — there’s a short supply of quality catchers in the MLB, and a 30-team demand. The Yankees have had a lot of these rare assets over the years, and have either used them to their advantage on the field, or as leverage in trades.
Now, this isn’t saying that Wells is going to be traded, or Seigler or Breaux, or even Sanchez for that matter. Some of these prospects will flame out, others will be needed at the big-league level, and others might be traded. Just because the Yankees are set at the top right now doesn’t mean they shouldn’t look towards the future.
Catchers typically have a short career span. As long as there’s a demand for offensive-minded catchers in the MLB, the Yankees stand to get some serious value out of Wells if he pans out. Either he will help them using his unique skill set, or he could be turned into a valuable asset through the trade block as the Yankees have done so many times this last decade. Either way, it looks like a good pick for the Yankees in the draft.