By Payton Ellison
No more than a month ago, Gary Sanchez had lost his starting catcher job for the New York Yankees.
Sanchez, who was once touted as the top offensive catcher in baseball, was on his way out of a Yankee uniform. He had just come off a season where, albeit shortened, he had hit just .147 (and not a Yasmani Grandal .147) with a wOBA of .271 and a wRC+ of just 68. That offensive performance combined with a still deteriorated defensive profile led to a period where he was no longer the starting catcher by the postseason and there were conversations about his future with the Yankees before he was tendered a contract on December 2. After a few hot games to start 2021, it looked to be more of the same. In the first five weeks of the season (until May 2), he had just a .284 wOBA and 80 wRC+ and had essentially lost his job to Kyle Higashioka (granted, aided by Kyle’s hot start to the season).
Now, almost out of nowhere, and until the past two weeks, very quietly, it’s been a resurgent season for the 28-year-old. The same Yankee fans that were calling for his head just a month ago are now calling for him to be in the All-Star Game in Colorado on July 11. In the 142 plate appearances since May 2 (as of June 26), he has the best wOBA (.395) among catchers in baseball, the second-best wRC+ at 153, just one below Yasmani Grandal’s 154, and ranks fifth in fWAR (1.4), all while continuing to have one of the higher hard hit and barrel percentages in the league. Overall, his season has gone from yet another disappointment to a resurgence. And the thing that makes this season different from his 2017 and 2019 campaigns is that he’s walking at the highest clip of his career (12.5) and having the second highest hard-hit rate in a full season in his career.
Granted, when Sanchez hits well, the defensive issues become a focal point, like in 2017 and 2019, but in just 100 more innings, he’s at the same place he was defensively in 2020 with -0.6 FRM, -2 Runs Extra Strikes and a 46.3% strike rate. None of those numbers are particularly good — he’s still around a 25th percentile framer according to Baseball Savant — and it’s just a slight improvement from 2019 when he was objectively one of the worst framers in the sport. Expecting Sanchez to be anything close to above average, much less his 2018 self, behind the dish is not happening at this point in his career.
And that’s why the question of what to do with Sanchez now becomes a key one. A month ago, it was a sure thing that he was getting non-tendered. Now, there’s talk that the Yankees should sell high on his hot streak and trade him while he’s hot. It’s unlikely, but assuming the Yankees’ turbulent season suddenly goes nowhere but south, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea. But as long as they are still in a position to contend — they’re projected to win 89 games and sit at a 57.2% chance to make the postseason as of June 26 — it wouldn’t be smart to trade Sanchez at all. After him and Higashioka, There is no other catcher on the 40-man roster, the next catcher on the depth chart is Rob Brantly, and none of Austin Wells, Josh Breaux, or Anthony Seigler are remotely close to being MLB-ready. It is almost a lock that Sanchez will be a Yankee at least through the end of this season.
Will that be the case in 2022? Assuming none of the looming lockout-related mess affects service time, Sanchez will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. His 2021 season, especially the last 23 games, has been nothing short of great but also points towards how streaky he can be with his best tool. If that is set to continue throughout his career while being below average to atrocious defensively, then the Yankees should capitalize on his restored trade value in the offseason.
That’s probably the only case the team has to trade him. If Gary Sanchez is not your starting catcher, then who is. Higashioka, even with his momentary spurts at the plate, is not a starting-caliber catcher in this league, and neither is Brantly. None of the top catchers in the Yankees farm have an ETA of 2023, and Siegler and Breaux are both at High-A Hudson Valley. What about the free-agent market? The best catcher that potentially will be on the market in the next two years is Buster Posey, who I refuse to believe won’t be a Giant at the end of his career. After that? Mike Zunino, Christian Vasquez, Austin Hedges, and Max Stassi, all much better defensively, but none a free agent this upcoming offseason. Only Zunino in a good season comes close to what Sanchez could provide offensively, and only Hedges will be 30 or younger when he becomes a free agent. Trade options? All of the potential options, with the exception of Carson Kelly, would be taking a bit of a risk.
Really, the decision on what to do with Sanchez for the Yankees comes down to whether they are willing to pay him. The Yankees, through his struggles, have certainly given him a lot of chances the last few seasons, which have brought him back to this point. As long as he continues to hit like he has throughout the season, then there certainly will be tons of teams willing to take him. Maybe in the very near future either one of the Yankee farmhands turns out to be Sanchez with a glove or the automated strike zone is in place, making framing moot. But those are two long shots at this point and time.
If this streaky hitting, bad defensive 1 to 3 fWAR catcher, who is unlikely to catch the team’s best pitcher, is going to be the best option at catcher for the next few years, then that’s what the Yankees are going to have to live with. And if these spurts of offensive star power would happen just a little more often, then it’s certainly not a bad option.
Payton Ellison is the managing editor for Diamond Digest and the Sports Director at his college radio station, WFNP The Edge. You can find him on Twitter @realpmelli14.
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