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The Yankees might be unable to significantly upgrade at catcher in 2022

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Gary Sánchez wasn’t good in 2021, but there may not be a path to bring in a starting-caliber alternative this offseason.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After a disastrous campaign in 2020, Gary Sánchez entered 2021 with a chip on his shoulder. He needed to prove that he could return to being one of the most feared catchers in the league after posting a dismal .147/.253/.365 showing in the shortened season, which only yielded a 69 wRC+ to pair with his shaky defense.

Now that the season has ended, we can draw some conclusions. At the very least, Sánchez was clearly not as bad as that aforementioned 69 wRC+ suggested. However, he was basically an average offensive performer and still a below-average defender, which makes his future in the organization murky, at best.

In the 2021 campaign, Sánchez hit .204/.307/.423 with 23 home runs and a 99 wRC+, and the glove still left plenty to be desired. FanGraphs gave him a slightly positive Defensive Fielding and Positional Adjustment rating at 3.5, but that only ranked 21st among the 30 catchers to reach 300 plate appearance. Worse, he fell to the 17th percentile in Framing per Statcast and Baseball Prospectus metrics weren’t much kinder. It’s safe to say that he is no magician with the mitt.

All those numbers make Sánchez a below-average starter. He finished 17th among those same 30 catchers in FanGraphs WAR, with 1.5, despite being 12th in games played, with 117. Offense is supposed to be his strongest suit, yet 12 catchers finished with a higher wRC+. Even relatively anonymous players like Carson Kelly of the D-backs and Max Stassi of the Angels fared better at bat than Sánchez.

At this point, the Yankees surely want to upgrade the catcher position. There is a problem, though: Even when compared to El Gary’s frustrating results, a sizable upgrade may not be available this offseason.

Courtesy of MLB.com, here are the catchers with a positive WAR who could hit the free agent market after the World Series (age and FanGraphs WAR listed):

  • Buster Posey (35, 4.9 WAR) — club option
  • Mike Zunino (31, 4.5) — club option
  • Manny Piña (34, 2.1)
  • Tucker Barnhart (31, 1.9) — club option
  • Christian Vázquez (31, 1.9) — club option
  • Yan Gomes (34, 1.8)
  • Stephen Vogt (37, 0.1)

Let’s go through those options. Posey won’t wear a different uniform than the San Francisco Giants, and is a living legend there. Zunino, by virtue of playing in more than 100 games this season, has a $7 million club option. The Rays are notoriously cost-conscious, but it’s unlikely that they let the 33-homer All-Star walk unless they really believe in Francisco Mejia.

Gomes, Vogt, Barnhart, and Vázquez aren’t significant upgrades over Sánchez, and it’s hard to envision Vázquez coming to New York either way. That leaves Manny Piña, who hit .189/.293/.439 (.732 OPS, 95 wRC+) and may be close to where Sánchez is offensively while offering much more in terms of defense.

Piña profiles more like a strong backup type, though, so the point remains. Upgrading the catcher position may be a difficult task for the Yankees, at least through free agency. What about the trade market?

The cream of the crop won’t be available: the Yasmani Grandals, Will Smiths, Salvador Perezes, J.T. Realmutos, and Sean Murphys of the world. And why would they? All of them but Perez played on contenders this year, and Salvy is signed for the long-term as the veteran leader of a strong group of Royals prospects that could break through as soon as 2022.

Maybe Willson Contreras becomes available at some point if the Cubs’ rebuild continues its teardown, but it’s not a given. Then, we have a group of young catchers, like Daulton Varsho, Tyler Stephenson, and the aforementioned Kelly. It’s hard to envision any of them being for sale in this catching-starved atmosphere..

The Angels will probably hang on to Max Stassi (2.9 WAR), the Brewers will keep Omar Narváez (2.8 WAR), and Minnesota will likely try to go for it again in 2022 with the help of Mitch Garver. The only realistic option, besides perhaps Contreras, appears to be Pittsburgh Pirates backstop Jacob Stallings.

But is Stallings a clear upgrade over Sánchez? Defensively, he might be. He was decent with the bat (.246/.335/.369, 95 wRC+), but very good behind the plate, with a 16.4 Defensive rating per FanGraphs. The numbers say he is a better framer than Sánchez (44th percentile), too. The Pirates’ backstop was tenth in Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) with 6.9; Sánchez was 68th, with -2.3.

The problem with Stallings is that Pittsburgh may not be willing to deal him because he has three additional years of team control remaining. He is not a free agent until after the 2024 season, which more or less lines up with their contention window.

Sánchez has one year left of arbitration, and then he will hit free agency after 2022. If the past two years are any indication, his place in the 2023 Yankees is in serious doubt. As far as next year is concerned though, the organization might not be able to bring in anyone significantly better. If they can pull off a surprising trade, then all power to them! But otherwise, Sánchez seems to be the most likely option.