Gary Sánchez has long been a question mark for the Yankees. First there were health questions. Then, it was his defense. Now, Sánchez is coming off a terrible offensive season, and is seemingly on his last straw as the Yankees’ starting catcher, having been benched in the 2020 playoffs.
In between those questions, Sánchez has been one of the most productive offensive catchers in baseball. But, if he can’t access that potential for a second straight year, it won’t outweigh his other limitations. Even though the Yankees have team control until the end of 2022, it is very safe to say that 2021 is Sánchez’s make-or-break year at age-28.
I’ve long been a staunch supporter of Sánchez. In 2020, though, he gave the Yankees neither the offense nor the defense they need from a starting MLB catcher. If the team was to let him go, who could even potentially take his place?
First of all, Kyle Higashioka is probably not a realistic option. His climb through 10 years in the minors to becoming a viable MLB catcher is inspiring, and he’s a well-liked teammate. But he’s also entering his age-31 season, is a career .186 hitter, and is more of an average defensive catcher than a true standout. Even still, Austin Romine was a good backup for the Yankees, but faltered as a starter for the Tigers. Some guys just don’t have the profile to start every day, and Higashioka’s free-swinging ways are nice a couple times a week, but probably not every day.
The Yankees don't have too many other immediate options at catcher right now. Rob Brantly is the new Erik Kratz, and Max McDowell and Donny Sands appear to be minor league depth. For this season, the Yankees are pretty much forced to give Sánchez one last go, with Higashioka as a safety net.
Should the Yankees decide to move on from Sánchez next season (or especially in 2023), there are suddenly some intriguing options. Four of the Yankees’ top-25 prospects per FanGraphs are catchers, and MLB Pipeline even ranks one of them as high as sixth on the team’s prospect list. Austin Wells, Anthony Seigler, Josh Breaux and Antonio Gomez could represent the next generation of Yankees catchers.
Each of these prospects represents a different kind of player. Wells is the highest-rated of the quartet according to MLB Pipeline, but FanGraphs actually lists him as a right fielder. Wells is probably the best hitter of the group, but he has enough defensive questions (but also the versatility) that he may end up at first base or a corner outfield spot in the pros. Whereas Sánchez really wouldn’t profile well in the outfield, Wells could become a Kyle Schwarber-type. He might be the most likely of the group here to actually make it to the bigs, but his final position is still up in the air. Hitting shouldn’t be a concern with him if all goes well.
Anthony Seigler, on the other hand, is the opposite of Wells. Also a first-round pick, Seigler has a 60-grade arm and is extremely athletic behind the plate. Not only a switch-hitter, he was also a switch-pitcher in his younger days. The question with Seigler is how well he’ll hit, especially after a stint at Low-A Charleston where he hit just .175 in an admittedly-small sample of 30 games.
Josh Breaux is probably the farthest along of the Yankees’ catching prospects, but is the least polished. Breaux has been compared to Sánchez, of all players, for his raw power and questionable defense. Also like Sánchez, his arm is his greatest defensive attribute. Breaux was also at Charleston in 2019, but slashed an impressive .271/.324/.518 with 13 homers and 49 RBI in 51 games.
Finally, there’s the youngest of the bunch, Antonio Gomez. Gomez is the highest-ranked catcher in the system according to FanGraphs, and a big reason why is his 80-grade arm, the highest possible rating given to a player. Gomez acquainted himself well in rookie ball in 2019, hitting .288 in a tiny 15-game sample. MLB Pipeline says he’s had a recorded pop time as low as 1.8 seconds, and has good receiving skills. But, only-19 years-old, Gomez may not be ready until 2023 or 2024 at the earliest.
The Yankees can solve this problem if Sánchez bounces back with a successful 2021 season. If he doesn’t, perhaps Breaux or Seigler could be ready to step in. Wells will probably will be moved defensively, but the real potential lies with Gomez. Sánchez’s contract expires before the 2023 season. If he can give the Yankees two more years, by then, it’s possible that Gomez is ready for a longer look.
Although the team can ill-afford another down year from Sánchez right now, the Yankees have quietly assembled a stockpile of catching depth that gives them plenty of options for the future.