Assessing Viable 2022 Options for Yankees Catcherby Jordan Leandre September 21, 2021 1 comment
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez has had an up-and-down career in the Bronx. What once seemed like a top-five catcher now seems like a potential open competition for the Yankees. This season, he’s posting a 103 wRC+ but is in the 18th percentile in catcher framing.
While Sanchez was one of the game’s premier catchers with a bat in his hands, it’s no mystery he’s been an adventure behind the plate. In 2021, Sanchez ranks tied for 55th in runs extra strikes, with only three catchers posting a worse rating. While he is tied for 11th in wRC+ among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, it may not be worth the lackluster defensive production.
Do the Yankees non-tender him? Do they trade him? If so, who becomes their new starter? Are there internal options, or does Brian Cashman need to take to the market to solve his issues behind the plate?
Starting with their current backup, Higashioka makes the most sense to take over for the Yankees if Sanchez leaves this offseason. Higashioka hasn’t set the world on fire with the bat in 2021. However, his .334 xwOBA is only five points below Sanchez’s. The results haven’t been there, but the quality of contact has been comparable, often better.
His expected slugging percentage is .476 to Sanchez’s .454; barrel rate is 14.6 to Sanchez’s 13.8; the hard-hit rate is 48.0 to Sanchez’s 42.1. Not to mention his defense is much better than the six-year Yankees backstop.
The 31-year-old has played in just 62 games this season but has accumulated four runs extra strikes (tied for eighth) and his pop-time is only 0.01 seconds worse than Sanchez’s. His arm rating (78.7) is a ways below that of Sanchez (84.6), but if he’s a better framer and has a similar pop-time, plus comparable offensively, it’s no question who the starter should be. Should the Yankees look to move Sanchez this winter, they should have no problem giving Higashioka the job as Yankees catcher.
If Sanchez departs and Higashioka gets the starting job, acquiring Castro makes a lot of sense. It would be a sort of non-traditional catching tandem––starter is more defensive-minded, back up is more offensive-minded. Results have come at a premium for Castro, who has just a 98 wRC+ and a .314 wOBA since 2019. Both of those numbers are only slightly below average but below average nonetheless. This is largely because he doesn’t do enough damage on fastballs––60.7 percent of pitches faced since 2018––to make up for his woes against secondary and tertiary pitches.
Over that span, he has an OPS of .828 against fastballs. However, his xOBP and xSLG are .392 and .572 respectively. To put it together, Castro is playing 136 points below what his expected OPS should be against fastballs. Put him in the nine-spot in the Yankees lineup and he should be successful. His barrel rate ranks tied for fourth among catchers with 300 or more plate appearances since 2018; the hard-hit rate is tied for 10th. His strikeout numbers are astronomical, but he walks at a rate only two active catchers––minimum of 300 plate appearances––can beat since 2018.
His defense isn’t what it once was, as he’s been a net-negative framer for the first time in his career. With that in mind, he’d only be taking one-third of the games away from Higashioka so that the reward may outweigh the risk. He’s under contract with the Houston Astros next season, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be untouchable at $3.5 million. Getting his to back up Higashioka could do wonders for the Yankees’ catcher room.
Barnhart has become a solid backstop for the Cincinnati Reds the past few seasons. Once a proverbial disaster behind the plate (-28 runs extra strikes in 2017 and 2018), Barnhart has emerged as one of the better pitch-framers in the National League (eight RES since 2019).
He’s far from a superstar and is a below-average major league hitter. But for two years, signing Barnhart could make a lot of sense as a bridge to Austin Wells or Josh Breaux, who both have their ETAs set for 2023.
ZIPS projects him to be worth 2.2 fWAR over the next two seasons, which factors to be worth $17.6 million over those two seasons. With Higashioka tied to arbitration for three seasons, the Yankees can afford to be a little generous to a rather pedestrian hitter for the sake of getting premier defense at the position.
Similar to Barnhart, Piña is a defense-first backstop. However, he has a bit more offensive prowess––especially since the start of 2020. Over that span, he has a 105 wRC+, a .340 xwOBA, and a barrel rate of 11 percent.
On top of that, Piña has accounted for eight RES since 2019 (four since 2020). Again, like Barnhart, Piña could be the perfect bridge at catcher. He is a borderline average offensive catcher with above-average defense. His offensive production since 2020 has been similar to Sanchez, only with better defense.
ZIPS projects him to be worth about 0.7 fWAR the next two seasons, which figures to be worth $5.6 million. Should the Yankees want to allocate their offseason budget towards acquiring a top-flight shortstop, perhaps committing $2.8 million in average annual value with Piña makes more sense than $8.9 million per season to Barnhart.
The New York Yankees need to commit this offseason. The constant limbo with Sanchez can’t be good for team morale. We know who he is: an above-average offensive catcher with subpar defense. With him expected to make north of $9 million in arbitration next season––is he worth it? Only time will tell. Right now, it’s tough to expect him back in pinstripes for 2022.
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