The Yankees enter the 2021 season with one of their more loaded lineups in recent memory. A quick glance up and down the card reveals question marks at essentially zero positions, with the exception of catcher. While the club has already confirmed Gary Sánchez as the starter to catch Gerrit Cole on April 1st, his miserable 2020 season sewed some doubt into his present day viability.
Though his replacement, Kyle Higashioka, may not have the kind of strikeout-laden slumps, Higashioka certainly lacks Gary’s sky-high ceiling as someone who’s already made two All-Star games and cleared 11.3 fWAR across 421 career games. At his most elite, Sánchez has been the best catcher in the majors, one of the game’s best power hitters, and a force for any opposing pitcher to reckon with. In 2020, he was arguably the worst hitter in baseball, rendering him virtually unplayable for any contender, considering his less than stellar framing and blocking skills behind the dish.
So far, the 2021 spring has brought a mixed bag: Sánchez started off scorching hot, hitting three homers in his first half-dozen games, but proceeded to notch just one hit across his next six. If Sánchez figures it out come April, the Yankees are set with their franchise catcher at least through the end of 2022. If he doesn’t, they’ll need to explore alternatives beyond the offensively limited Higashioka. The Yankees are a team in obvious win-now mode, and any continuation of Sánchez’s 2020 season into 2021 will be of grave concern.
In terms of internal solutions beyond Higashioka, the Yankees just drafted University of Arizona catcher Austin Wells in last year’s first round, but he’s a much better hitter than receiver, and is a few years away from a possible first taste of big-league action. Robinson Chirinos was set to challenge Higashioka for the backup job behind Sánchez in spring training, but fractured his wrist on a hit-by-pitch and will spend the next four-to-six weeks on the shelf. It’s possible he’ll scratch and claw his way onto the roster following his recovery, but the veteran looked awful in 2020 after parts of six solid offensive major league seasons.
If Sánchez stumbles out of the gate and the Yankees deem an alternative from outside the organization is necessary before the trade deadline, their best bet at an upgrade could include Gary himself in any sort of deal. While his production has been questionable recently, his talent is undeniable—anyone capable of hitting a baseball harder than almost anyone in the majors is worthy of big league consideration.
Making a mid-season trade involving Sánchez for an immediately contributing catcher would necessarily be a challenge trade. In a piece on Beyond the Box Score, Henry Druschel described a challenge trade as such: “If I’ve got a player I think is bad but you think is good, and you’ve got a player you think is bad but I think is good, we’ll both be happy to swap them one-for-one.” These kinds of trades are much rarer than straightforward present for future value swaps because they rely upon an equal divergence between two clubs’ evaluation of two distinct players, and in this case, at the same position. While the Yankees might be able to sweeten a deal with the inclusion of a prospect or two to ensure an upgrade at the position, they’d almost certainly need to find a buyer who believes in Gary’s eventual viability at the plate.
If there’s a potential trade fit out there for Sánchez and the Yankees, they won’t reveal themselves for some time. For now, even with a spot in the Opening Day lineup secured, things aren’t quite settled for the Yankees and their catcher. If Sánchez comes out looking as lost as he did during the shortened 2020 campaign, they’ll be forced to make tough decisions about who squats behind the plate in the Bronx. They’re a team with a wide-open championship window, and they can’t afford for Sánchez’s struggles last season to bleed deep into 2021. We know Sánchez has the talent and work ethic to make it work, but it’s now or never for him and the Yankees.