We are watching an extinction in real time. For it was not just Gary Sanchez who was stripped of his starting catching role in the playoffs. It was Miami’s Jorge Alfaro too. It was Wilson Ramos by the Mets in September as they tried to make a postseason run.
The big-body, offense-first, low-energy, defensively deficient catcher is going, going …
As one executive said, “When the automated strike zone comes maybe you can have a DH catch because framing will mean nothing or maybe if we give the catcher an earpiece and can feed him every pitch, game calling will mean nothing. But we are asking catchers to make 150 decisions a game and have deep relationships with every pitcher and more than ever you cannot throw the defensive component away.”
The trend bodes poorly for the Yankees. They stuck with Sanchez when his trade value was high believing they could extract an all-around better player out of him. A new catching guru, Tanner Swanson, was hired after the 2019 campaign specifically to upgrade Sanchez, who responded with his worst all-around season.
The Yankees kept happy talking Sanchez — going on about better at-bats than the results were showing, better framing outweighing the absent-minded passed balls and wild pitches. But deeds are always worth more than words and Sanchez was first dropped to ninth in the order and then completely out of the lineup. Now the Yankees have seven weeks to show what they truly believe.
Contracts for 40-man roster players must be tendered by Dec. 2. Multiple executives said they expect the Yankees to try to trade Sanchez between now and then. But the very reason the Yanks would want to move on — Sanchez’s type of catcher going extinct while his salary rises in economically wobbly times in the sport — either diminishes or eliminates his value.
An interested team can wait to see if the Yankees non-tender him, which would make Sanchez a free agent who could potentially be signed for lower than his arbitration projections. Sanchez was due $5 million for a full 2020 and two individuals with expertise in arbitration think Sanchez’s poor 2020 hurts his chances of making more than $6 million for 2021.
As recently as after the 2018 season, the Marlins were interested in trading Realmuto to the Yankees with Sanchez as the main return. But the Yankees projection was that Sanchez was as valuable as Realmuto while having two extra years of control. Now, ironically, the Yanks could let Sanchez go via trade or non-tender into the same market in which Realmuto is the best position free agent.
Would the Marlins still try to obtain Sanchez? Alfaro, one of the key returns from Philadelphia for Realmuto, lost his job to the Kyle Higashioka-esque Chad Wallach in the playoffs. Wallach played in 55 regular games sprinkled over the past four seasons with a .600 OPS. Higashioka played in 72 regular season games over the past four seasons with a .602 OPS. Yet, Wallach started all five of the Marlin postseason games and Higashioka started five of the Yankees’ seven postseason games. Top Marlins lieutenant Gary Denbo liked Gary Sanchez when Denbo ran the Yankee minor league system, which explained the interest the last time. But if they are moving away from Alfaro, would they move toward Sanchez?
The industry is going to see Sanchez as a buy-low candidate either in a trade or post-non-tender free agency. Perhaps unshackled from a place in which his game and confidence regressed as the Yanks burdened him with more information and fans delivered more criticism, Sanchez will re-emerge as a force.
On “The Michael Kay Show,” Hal Steinbrenner said it was “surprising” how far Sanchez had fallen. He added, “I guess we’ll just have to see about next year obviously, going forward, but it’s an incredible amount of talent and he’s gonna keep working his backside off and we’re gonna keep helping him in every way we can. If all goes well, I believe we’ll get him back.”
These are the four choices Steinbrenner and the team have with Sanchez:
1. Keep him and go through the normal arbitration process.
2. Try to get Sanchez to accept a pre-tender salary with the implicit threat that it would be worse for him in free agency. The maximum cut is 20 percent or down to $4 million. If his salary were frozen at $5 million for 2021, would both sides agree to try again?
3. Trade Sanchez. There is an industry expectation of lots of trades between the conclusion of the World Series and the tender date as clubs try to receive something back for players they otherwise will seriously consider non-tendering.
4. Non-tender Sanchez if the other avenues (lower salary, trades) do not manifest. Just how much payroll do the Yanks need to chop? For this would be a concession that the Yanks were mistaken in their patience/belief in Sanchez. Might they have won a title in the last two years with Realmuto behind the plate instead?
Even without Realmuto, the Yankees were a team that could have endured lesser offense at such a defensively vital spot considering the strength of the rest of the lineup. For example, Tampa Bay’s Mike Zunino hit the same .147 this year as Sanchez, yet the Rays were willing to deal with that liability and get the occasional power in exchange for Zunino’s quality defense.
The Rays had Zunino start four Division Series games against the Yankees, though he went just 1-for-12. The one hit was arguably the biggest hit of Game 2, a two-run homer off J.A. Happ. Also in that Game 2, Sanchez went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in what would turn out to be his final start of 2020. Was it also his final start as a Yankee?
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