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The Yankees face internal roster decisions at the catcher position

While Gary Sánchez and Kyle Higashioka hold down spots at the major league level, rising prospects are putting their name front and center for valuable 40-man roster spots heading into 2022.

MiLB: JUN 17 Columbia Fireflies at Charleston RiverDogs Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Yankees are heading into an offseason while having to watch two of their biggest rivals prepare to duke it out in the ALCS. Many questions are emerging around the potential roster moves to revamp the team in a manner that will allow them to compete — not just with the teams that finished ahead of them this season, but also with a Toronto club that is on the rise and finished just one game behind them in 2021.

One of those key roster spots that needs to be addressed this offseason is the catcher’s position, which is far from settled despite the presence of two veteran catchers who remain under team control. Increasing the discussion about the catchers is the emergence of two players in the Yankees system who will generate interest in the upcoming Rule 5 draft if left off the current roster.

The Yankees’ catcher situation could be set very easily if they once again hitch their wagon to the tandem of Gary Sánchez and Kyle Higashioka. Both players are under team control moving forward but have produced uninspiring numbers over the last few years, leaving many fans and observers wondering if the Yankees need more at the position. The decision to hold onto one or both players could revolve around the team’s ability to find an upgrade from outside the organization and the requirement to protect their prospects, who are coming due for a roster spot.

In recent offseasons the Yankees used minor league free agent contracts to bring in veteran catchers such as Erik Kratz, Robinson Chirinos, and Rob Brantly. Those players could be held in Triple-A off of the 40-man roster while offering a veteran insurance policy if needed. Finding the right balance of capability and prospect upside is the key for the Yankees and every organization around the sport.

Josh Breaux has been on Yankees fans’ radar since he was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft. Taken after two seasons of baseball at McLennan (Texas) Community College, he was known for an extremely strong arm and big raw power. Questions emerged from the beginning as to Breaux’s ability to stick at the catching position, as he is frequently described as raw at the position in evaluations.

Breaux’s defensive profile has not improved dramatically, as his slow delivery to second base saw him throw out just 17 percent of base stealers against him this past year. Much harder to define is Breaux’s pitch framing, which is not always a stat that is readily available for the minor league level (though Baseball Prospectus had mildly promising results). The Yankees still found opportunities for Breaux to remain behind the plate during the year though, even with fellow prospect Anthony Seigler at the same level at times in 2021.

The calling card for Breaux is going to remain his power, as he slugged .503 on the season with 23 home runs in just 350 at-bats between High-A Hudson Valley and Double-A Somerset. His arrival at the upper levels of the minors makes him a prime candidate to either be protected on the 40-man roster or selected in the Rule 5 draft.

The Yankees have every reason to be nervous about losing prospects in the draft, as they saw a catcher and former prospect Luis Torrens put together his best major league season for the Seattle Mariners, albeit five years after being plucked out of the Yankees system before playing any games above Low-A. The team has also lost three pitchers in the last two years through the Rule 5 draft and while it is not clear if Rony García or Trevor Stephan will become valuable major leaguers down the road, the addition of Garrett Whitlock was one of the biggest offseason moves that helped Boston reach and advance in the playoffs this year.

Breaux’s promotion from High-A to Double-A coincided with Donny Sands’ promotion to the Triple-A level. Originally drafted as a third-baseman, Sands hit the ball well early in his professional career but struggled when he began his transition behind the plate. The Yankees let Sands work through a swing change in 2019 and started to see major results in their internal metrics during the second half of the season. Still it was hard to imagine the offensive progress that Sands would make on the field in 2021.

After hitting just eight home runs during his first five professional seasons, Sands socked 18 between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. There were also several reports that he has very strong pitch framing metrics, as he was behind the plate for much of the season for a Somerset pitching staff that led its league in ERA and numerous other pitching categories.

The Yankees have tough roster decisions coming up early this winter. With players like Josh Breaux and Donny Sands becoming Rule-5 eligible, the team will have to decide on how many catchers to carry and what the balance will be between immediate contributors and those with potential down the road. The roster mix could go a long way toward determining the types of free agents and trades that the Yankees pursue as they seek to balance the organization’s roster in the early part of the offseason.