After posting an .849 OPS at Triple-A last season and after an Arizona Fall League stint where his dominant performance for Surprise was a pleasant one, Gary Sanchez found himself back on the prospect map this winter. The 23-year-old impressed Yankee brass to the point that they felt confident trading incumbent backup catcher John Ryan Murphy. That role seemed to be Sanchez's to win when spring training opened last month, but a sluggish start against live competition has thrown a wrench in those plans. Sanchez is currently 1-for-17, and he ranks last among the backup catcher candidates in camp in just about everything.
Apparently some members of the media expected Sanchez to win a major league job without much of a problem, and they've taken him to task for not doing that yet. NJ.com accused him Sunday of "wilting under pressure." The New York Post not as harshly contended that the stress of competing for a 25-man roster spot might be getting to Sanchez. In not-so-great news on that front, Joe Girardi didn't disagree.
"The first time you have an opportunity to make a club, I am sure there is a lot of excitement in that young man. We really believe he is going to be a really good player."
That's not a condemnation. It's an affirmation of faith in Sanchez's future, but with an emphasis on the future and not the present. It's not a guarantee that the Yankees won't take Sanchez north with them if his hitting improves over the next two weeks, or even if it doesn't, but with the defensively more advanced and out-of-options Romine playing well that's looking like more and more of a reach.
It would be disappointing for fans to see Romine, whose ceiling is "light-hitting backup," make the team instead of the more exciting Sanchez. The fruits of the Yankees' youth movement figure to be scarce in the Bronx, at least early on, with only Luis Severino and possibly Rob Refsnyder representing their latest round of young talent.
Intriguing as it would be to see Sanchez all year though, number two catcher isn't exactly the roster spot that will tilt the Yankees' odds for success. Murphy played in 67 games in 2015 but only got to the plate 172 times. McCann started 126 times and since he's one of the Yankees' top bats, he also pinch hit for Murphy late in close games when he wasn't starting.
It's unlikely Sanchez would see more time than Murphy did, if even as much. Murphy hit well last year for a backup catcher with a 99 wRC+, but a drop off from that to Romine's projected 78 wRC+ via ZiPS wouldn't make much of a difference over so few plate appearances, especially when those in close and late situations will get picked up by someone else. If McCann goes down for any length of time, Sanchez will get the bulk of the playing time, even if he's not already on the roster as the reserve.
There's also a financial dilemma facing the Yankees as they decide whether or not Sanchez makes the 25-man despite his early scuffling. By waiting a little longer to bring him to the majors, they can push back his service clock to keep him under team control an extra year, and possibly avoid giving him Super Two status and a fourth year of arbitration eligibility.
On the other hand, thanks to McCann's contract, which runs another three or four seasons depending on whether his sixth year option vests, getting Sanchez up right away could be more beneficial. If he reaches arbitration for the first time in 2019 having been a backup for three years he'll get less than if he got there after a year of starting. Since arbitration awards in trips two and three are based in part on the prior year's salary, the Yankees could save big for several seasons by playing it that way.
The real point here is that failing to make the team in his first opportunity doesn't say anything about what Sanchez is long term. Having signed way back in 2009 at 16, it feels like he's been in the organization as long as pinstripes and blue hats. That makes it easy to forget that he's still raw and still learning the most difficult defensive position on the field. As Sanchez can already attest with an up-and-down minor league resume, the road to the majors isn't always a six-lane straight arrow highway.
What will be interesting is how Sanchez reacts if he does end up with a ticket to Scranton rather than New York. We've seen young Yankees sent to the minors when they might not have been expecting it before. Francisco Cervelli got banished in 2012 to make room for Chris Stewart and he played really poorly at Triple-A. Refsnyder was sent down after four games last July in favor of Brendan Ryan, but he made the most of it and finished strong when he returned in September. How Sanchez deals with that kind of adversity says more about him and pressure than anything that happens over a handful of at bats in March.